A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this book.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that 2015 Michael L. Printz Honor book Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith is a coming-of-age novel that is so compellingly bizarre it's sure to appeal to older teens and adults who appreciate authors such as Kurt Vonnegut, Franz Kafka, and Jonathan Safran Foer. Written from the perspective of a 16-year-old guy from the fictional Midwestern town of Ealing, Iowa, the book features many mature coming-of-age themes, such as sex and sexual orientation, ancestry, family relationships, friendship, war, violence (six-foot-tall praying-mantis-like bugs hatch from people and want to do two things: eat and copulate), strong language, and substance misuse (cigarettes, alcohol). Mature high-schoolers and reluctant teen readers will love the frank descriptions of what it's like to be a smart but confused teenager who finds himself feeling aroused even as the world is falling apart around him.
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What's the story?
Andrew Smith's nearly indescribable coming-of-age novel GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE chronicles the very bizarre history of 16-year-old Austin Szerba. A self-described Polish Lutheran kid from Ealing, Iowa (a fictional town), Austin tells the reader he doesn't lie. So he admits that he's deeply in love with his girlfriend, Shann Collins (with whom he'd really like to have sex for the first time), but he also confesses he's attracted to his gay best friend, Robby Brees. One fateful day, Austin and Robby accidentally set in motion things that lead to the end of the world...starting with a half-dozen Ealing residents hatching into six-foot-tall praying-mantis-like carnivores who only want to do two things: eat and mate, much like teenagers. As the boys realize they're the only ones who know what's going on, Austin breaks up narrating the oncoming confrontation with the killer bugs with thoughts about everything from his Polish ancestors' travails to his older brother's time in Afghanistan to the list of obvious and unlikely things that arouse him.
Is it any good?
It's a testament to Andrew Smith's considerable skills as a writer that reading this book is reminiscent of reading One Hundred Years of Solitude or Slaughterhouse Five or Everything Is Illuminated. The plot is so scrambled that Austin tells you on the very first page that it includes "babies with two heads, insects as big as refrigerators, God, the devil, limbless warriors, rocket ships, sex, diving bells, theft, wars, monsters, internal combustion engines, love, cigarettes, joy, bomb shelters, pizza, and cruelty." And that's basically all you need to know. The plot goes backward, sideways, and forward all at once, and on every page you realize what a genius Smith is to write this book about history and life and the importance of books for clever teens who will appreciate his candor, authenticity, and mastery of language.
As the bibliophile Austin so acutely explains, "you could never get everything in a book," but "good books are always about everything." It's a bold statement, but Smith is clearly up to the task of writing an incredibly good book. Like any other remarkable book, this one is not for everyone, especially younger teens who aren't mature enough to read the word "horny" without breaking into fits of laughter. But mature young readers -- and, for that matter, adults -- should take in Smith's command of a story that smoothly includes references to volcanoes, the Holocaust, Vietnam, the Rolling Stones, BMX bikes, the vice president's sex life, and unstoppable Iowa corn. Prepare to be sad when the book is over, because Smith has written one unforgettable, hilarious, and heartbreaking tale about what makes us human and happy and passionate about life.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the importance of literature in Grasshopper Jungle. What does Austin mean by saying "you could never get everything in a book," but that "good books are always about everything"? How is poetry a way of bonding for Austin and Robby?
Discuss the various genres of the book. It's a coming-of-age story, but there are sci-fi and apocalyptic elements mixed with family chronicle and teen romance. What did you think of the book tackling so many different issues?
Talk about how sex and losing one's virginity are major themes of the book. Is the candor about adolescent sexuality authentic or inappropriate? Talk about the significant role of sex in the story and in young adult literature. Is reading about sex different from watching depictions of it on TV or in movies?
- Author: Andrew Smith
- Genre: Science Fiction
- Topics: Bugs, Friendship, High School, Science and Nature
- Book type: Fiction
- Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
- Publication date: February 11, 2014
- Publisher's recommended age(s): 14 - 18
- Number of pages: 388
- Available on: Nook, Audiobook (unabridged), Hardback, iBooks, Kindle
- Award: ALA Best and Notable Books
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