We broached The Age Question in September when the NBA longlist was announced. Having just finally finished Tom McNeal’s FAR FAR AWAY, I can’t think of a more interesting title to challenge the question.
Here we have a ghost narrator who establishes a tone of other-worldliness while setting us firmly in a very normal (-seeming) contemporary small town. (At least mostly contemporary. No mobile media). The ghost–that of Jacob Grimm–becomes as important a character as the young teen protagonists, central to the plot, and to the novel’s emotional resolution (in fact, the emotional resolution of the book depends upon the ghost’s). This perspective lets the reader shift between feeling settled and unsettled, sure of the world and unsure…this hesitation very important to the story’s moving forward, and to the emotional development of the characters, who are in that teasing no-man’s land of adolescence.
What I find remarkable is that when the story descends into darkness, the tone keeps that slight remove of an “old-fashioned” story (through the ghost’s perspective) just enough that the reader can control their emotional footing. This is a truly frightening book–much more so than DOLL BONES–yet it doesn’t go to the gruesome or violent depths it could have easily (and to which many mature minds will leap). And its romance is very tame, though teasing enough to please the older reader.
The discussion of whether this book is YA or not is all over the place. This summer, Jonathan Eric and Monica discussed it in comments to Fuse #8’s Newbery/Caldecott Predictions post, placing it “firmly middle school,” and “maybe too YA” for the Newbery. But despite the character’s ages, I found their sensibilities fairly young. Meanwhile, more recently at Crossreferencing, Mark and Sarah Flowers debated some of the plotting weaknesses in the story (I agree with them, but to me, at the moment, they are balanced by the story’s strengths) wondering if the book is “too young” to be YA. (If anything, this may not be either a fully successful children’s OR YA book, as the ghost’s sensibility is very, very adult, and a significant layer to the story’s success is his.)
I think the book succeeds differently to different audiences. As a YA novel, it offers a chillingly real insight into the deceptions adults can practice by presenting themselves a certain way in their communities; into the dangers of small-mindedness, and the power of staying open to “impossibilities” you thought you’d given up with childhood; into the varieties of passion that can redeem individuals, and the responsibility of choosing one’s path. As a children’s book (children as defined by the Newbery terms) it offers a richly layered plot and set of surprising characters (is there a Conk fan-club yet?), lots of age-appropriate romance, and a story in which readers can lay their memory-scapes of the Grimm tales over the real world in a way that lets them deliciously tempt a fantasy fear-scape within the safety of a well-crafted novel. Call it the 12-year-old’s Where the Wild Things Are. Whichever box we try to put it in or take it out of, however it succeeds it each, I think it’s hard to deny this is firmly within Newbery territory.