Can a book aimed at teenagers ever be raunchier than their own imaginations? Parents and teachers always worry that’s true but it’s easy to argue that Young Adult fiction is only now starting to keep pace with the hormonal thoughts of its readers.
Take the kerfuffle over Raziel Reid’s When Everything Feels Like the Movies, winner of a Governor-General’s Literary Award, finalist for Canada Reads 2015 and subject of a good old-fashioned moral clutch-one’s-pearls boycott. And all because its glorious anti-hero Jude has the sex drive and cynical wit of any small-town gay teen today? It’s like there are straight people who’ve never read Catcher in the Rye! I cheered when Canada Reads panelist Lainey Lui gave the book a full-throated defence on CBC last week:
Critics of Reid’s book who suggest that he might be leading young readers astray miss the point — he’s only going to where they already are. Parents concerned about what’s on their children’s reading shelf might want to first have a conversation about what’s in their internet browsing history, but that’s a whole other topic. Like no other medium, a novel can bring you into another person’s head and if that mind is crazed with teenage anxieties and audaciousness, Young Adult novels need to be weird.
That’s been the mantra of author Andrew Smith, who, after writing several fine and earnest books for teens, threw caution to the wind last year and wrote the kind of YA novel he wanted to read. Now in paperback (and soon to be a film from Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World director Edgar Wright), Grasshopper Jungle is a truly demented sci-fi small-town giant-insect apocalypse featuring a skater boy named Austin, madly in love with his girlfriend and his best friend while stumbling upon a mad scientist’s nightmare plot. It’s like Smith put a bunch of monster movies, the TV show Lost and an earmarked copy of The Perks of Being a Wallflower into a blender, then joyfully flung the pulpy mass around in the air. On his book tour, the author has been promoting the hashtag #KeepYAweird.
As with When Everything Feels Like the Movies, some parents and teachers might be appalled at Grasshopper Jungle’s swearing, drug use, anti-authoritarianism, gore, adultery and simply non-stop references to testicles but younger readers will simply see Austin for who he is: a good kid hoping to save the world, touch Shann’s breasts and maybe make out with Robbie again. You know, as kids do.