Search on SLJ.com ....
Subscribe to SLJ
Follow This Blog: RSS feed
Someday My Printz Will Come
Inside Someday My Printz Will Come

But does everybody love the ants?

ants But does everybody love the ants?A.S. King had an honor book last year (Please Ignore Vera Dietz), so I have been looking forward to reading Everybody Sees the Ants. This second book feels really different from Vera, although it has some elements in common: hints of magical realism and a thoughtful, intellectual center that acts as a unifying backbone to realistic, relatable characters.

The plot: Everyone seems to want to help Lucky Linderman, who came to school authorities’ attention by creating a school-wide survey on suicide his freshman year. He’s not actually considering suicide himself; he is, however, being ruthlessly tormented by Nader McMillan. Guidance counselors, teachers, his parents: all are well-meaning but don’t seem to know how to help or what to tell him. It’s only in his dreams, where Lucky is determined to rescue his grandfather (who is a POW/MIA in Vietnam since 1973), that Lucky attempts to deal with his daily life. But are his dreams only dreams? As Nader’s bullying escalates, and Lucky increasingly resents his distant, powerless father, Lucky starts to see the ants, a Greek Chorus-like group who comment honestly — and sometimes hilariously — on what goes on.

There’s a lot that I loved in this read: Lucky is  an engaging narrator, and his tough, hurt, bewildered reactions to things are captivating. The shifts in time between chapters are effective, and the secondary characters are almost all complex and memorable. The ants are a conceit that really worked for me as a reader. The humor they bring to heartbreaking and upsetting situations provides a really nice balance; the funny artfully enhances the sad. I like the various connections that King weaves between bullies and wars, too. There are the public conflicts that we clearly struggle to talk about (still: Vietnam; today: Afghanistan and Iran) and the private conflicts that we can barely acknowledge. We can mostly-sort-of own our ambiguous feelings about sending young people to war but are ill-equipped to talk about the hurtful conflicts that they all experience on a day-to-day basis. (No, really ill-equipped; check out this blog and Op-Ed from danah boyd.) This is a book about hidden and public wars, and it’s thought provoking and emotional and powerful.

But.

I had some issues with parts of it. Many of the secondary characters work well (Lucky’s parents, his aunt and uncle), but Nader (the bully) and Ginnie (possible love interest, kind of) feel thin to me. I think they’re both too important to the story to be so one-dimensional and uninteresting. Additionally, I felt that some of the narrative twists were not very surprising at all. (I’m keeping that deliberately general, since this is just out this month and I don’t want to spoil too much!)

And now we’re going to go for a side trip inside my head, because my next complaint is really all about me, me, MEEEEEE!

I really struggled with the dates in this book. Lucky’s grandfather is exactly my dad’s age. Which makes Lucky’s dad analogous to me. In fact, his dad is, according to the text, 3-4 years older than me. And while I would be biologically capable of having a teenage son, I do not. And while I have friends my own age who have children, none of them are teenagers. And while some of my friends who are 3-4 years older than me are capable of having a teenage son, they do not. And I realize that is completely anecdotal and that he wouldn’t be THAT young of a parent (he would have become a parent at 24), it’s…somewhat unusual. Worth remarking on, I guess I would say. And while I don’t believe that any teens are breaking out their calculators and doing this math, it felt off to me — off enough to me that it felt like an authorial intrusion. Even though I loved the thematic power and resonance that the Vietnam POW/MIA issues bring to the text, they started to feel shoe-horned in.

Since we started down this Sarah’s-head-sized rabbit hole, I guess we can continue. With so major a part of the novel feeling like an authorial intrusion, I started to feel it all over the book! Why isn’t Lucky saying anything—anything— about technology? Yes, he makes fun of Uncle Dave’s and Aunt Jody’s ancient computer, but that’s it. Does Lucky have a computer in his room at home? He never even (that I remember) mentions a cell phone. Does he have a crappy one? An awesome one? Why don’t I know this? And then the Vagina Monologues part only evokes a 50-something white lady, at least for me. So. Authorial intrusions. Which may only be in my head. Much like Lucky’s ants, I guess?

Frankly, I’d like to hear from people who disagree, because there’s really so much that I liked about this book. What did you all think? Did I miss some details? Am I overreacting? Pull me out of my rabbit hole!

Pub details: Little, Brown October 2011; review from ARC

share save 171 16 But does everybody love the ants?
About Sarah Couri

Sarah Couri is a librarian at Grace Church School's High School Division, and has served on a number of YALSA committees, including Quick Picks, Great Graphic Novels, and (most pertinently!) the 2011 Printz Committee. Her opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, GCS, YALSA, or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @scouri or e-mail her at scouri35 at gmail dot com.

Comments

  1. anne says:

    Sarah – just a bit on the whole parent thing. So funny that it freaked you out. I have so many friends that I went to high school with that have teen children and college age children. I am not sure how unusual it actually is.

  2. Sarah Couri says:

    Thanks, Anne! It’s good to hear from people who didn’t struggle with these details!

  3. Alys says:

    The CDC Survey on Family Growth website lists 25.1 as the mean age at birth of first child for fathers. I’ve seen essentially the same number (about 25) over and over as the average age that men have their first child. Yes, yes, statistics and averages are people, but it does show that 24 is not unusual in the slightest.

    I suspect that little technology is mentioned in the text in an attempt to keep from dating the book.

    • Karyn Silverman says:

      The smallest thing can derail a book for a reader. There’s a bubble of willing suspension of disbelief when we read: this is what lets us fully engage. And when something pierces that bubble, it’s like a crack in the windshield–it doesn’t take much pressure for the whole thing to break once one crack appears. I hate reading books set in my neighborhood because even one tiny error makes me question everything. I could go on to illustrate this point, but actually Sarah and I just decided the reader response/subjective piece (which is impossible to fully avoid) is so rich that it deserves its own post. We’ll try to get to that one soon, because there’s a LOT to say about this.

  4. Liz B says:

    I’m glad to know I’m not the only reader who pays attention to dates: my reading journal is full of dates, family trees, names, etc to help me keep track and see how things work together.

    The age of the parents doesn’t strike me as unusual at all: it seems on par with averages from 15 odd years ago.

    Now, what will crack my windshield every time? People pumping their own gas in New Jersey; followed by New Jersey geography being flat-out wrong. (I distinguish between, say, making up a town called “Point Nice” where anything goes and using the town “Point Pleasant” which has its own geography & history). If a writer gets it “wrong” I begin to think I cannot trust the rest of the book.

  5. Mark Flowers says:

    I loved, loved, loved this book when I read it – but it has been months (I got a very early ARC), so I can’t bring evidence to bear yet. I’m planning on rereading it soon.

    On Nader: again, without being able to quote from memory, I would say that generally speaking, a bully as seen from the eyes of the bullied is pretty much always going to be a thin character, no?

    (PS: My daughter was born when I was 27 and my wife was 26, so you won’t get support from me on the young parent side)

  6. Sarah Couri says:

    Without getting into too much of what I want to say about personal reaction/individual readings and/versus committee work, I do want to say to everyone: thank you! You all are helping me relax about Lucky’s parents’ ages. :-)

  7. KT Horning says:

    I haven’t yet read this book — but I did want to pop in to compliment Sarah on this blog post title! I will think of it every time I see the book from now on.

  8. Liz B says:

    KT, I already suspect I will be using Everyone Loves the Ants at least once or twice by mistake on twitter or on my blog.

  9. I totally get how the parental age could take you out of things for a bit. Smaller things have certainly taken me out of a good book for a few scenes. But I’ll raise my hand as among those who had a kid at 24 so now my oldest is 17 and a senior in high school. And I’m not a minority among folks in this category. I’d say it’s about even the number of her friends whose parents are within about 4 years of my age and those whose parents are much older.

    I will say this though, when my daughter was in Kindergarten my husband and I were the youngest parents – which made me realize how much older some people are before they have kids.

  10. Heidi says:

    I loved the ants and found the characters even more gratifying as those in King’s Vera Dietz. Regarding your personal issue with age, I had my daughter at 22.5 and my son at 25. We just dropped her off at college. Most of my friends have similarly aged children. We’re all in our early 40s. Maybe one of the reasons I loved the book is that my dad was drafted and served in the war and I went to school with kids whose dads didn’t come back, so I related to the parents from a generational point of view. I think there’s a lot to love about this book and I’m hoping for good things with it.

  11. Lisa McMann says:

    Sarah, I really loved this book, noteably the magical realism bit you mentioned — I think that makes this book (and this author) unique. And I love the Vietnam aspect which is non-existent in YA today. I’m so glad you’re talking about this title here!

    I’ll chime in with the young parents and mention I had my first baby at 25. My husband was 24. Lots of my classmates from HS have kids who have graduated from HS now (I’m 43 now, with an 18 and a 15 yr-old.) I do think that people nowadays are having kids later in life, but 18-20 years ago, 25 wasn’t out of the ordinary.

    As for the technology, I felt like it was present but not in an iPhone 4 kind of way, which totally dates a book 6 months after it’s out. And while it’s getting less common, there are still some kids who just don’t do much with technology, believe it or not. My kids still have friends who don’t have computers or phones. Not everybody can afford them, and not everybody is interested. I have several friends who have told their kids that if they want a phone, they’ll have to get a job to pay for it. Not a bad thing at all — but that does keep some kids from using technology sometimes.

    Thanks for a very interesting and thought provoking discussion on this book! Very interesting blog — I’ll be sure to bookmark it.

  12. Mike Jung says:

    I’m one of those older parents who had their first child at 37, and the majority of my close friends who have kids did it a similar way, but I’ve also known and met a lot of people who started having kids in their early-to-mid twenties even in recent years. So while I’m a total believer in the subjectivity of reactions to specific details – I don’t think it’s, you know, WRONG to be thrown by the idea of a 25 year old first-time parent – I don’t think it’s terribly unusual even now.

  13. Jan Chapman says:

    Re: The Vagina Monologues being a white 50′ish woman phenomenon, I just checked Google and found that there were several college productions of VM this past year. So, obviously there are young women who find this play compelling and relevant. Teens would never be allowed to do a production of VM in most public high schools, so I think the fact that this is an “underground” production spearheaded by a girl who is rebelling against fundamentalist conservative parents makes it completely believable. When reading teen literature, we must all accept the premise that we are going to bring our adult perceptions to our reading–whether it be the perception of a 50 year old or a 25 year old. Neither is more valid than the other. It is an adult reacting to a teen novel. So, what to us may be authorial intrusion, may not register as such with a teen reader. Just saying…

  14. Sarah Couri says:

    I just wanted to pop back in and say thanks so much, everyone; I really appreciate the perspective check you’ve all provided! As I said, there really was so much that worked for me in this novel that I’m glad to hear that it’s really just me getting tripped up in my own head and that, overall, it’s a smooth read for most people. If I were actually on the committee, I’d be rereading this one with your voices in my mind.

    And Mark, you are absolutely right — it’s not fair at all to expect a balanced view of Nader from Lucky’s perspective. I was (totally unfairly) comparing Ants to Vera from last year where Charlotte was more the bully character, and did manage to be a more complicated character, largely because there were other perspectives from which to see her. That point would, of course, have no place at the table, and is neatly resolved by your comment!

    Lisa and Alys, as far as the technology goes, I didn’t want Lucky to be a huge tech-head, I didn’t want the title devolve into some kind of lecture on cyber bullying, and I definitely don’t want Ants to feel dated, either, so I hear what you are saying. At this point, authors have a tricky job of incorporating technology (without it, or with too little of it, the book feels quaint and dated in its own way and too much is, of course, just too much!). I guess I feel like, once my windshield cracked, that was a slight element that felt off. As a reader, I would have appreciated just a little more attention, just one or two details. Did he take a cell phone on his walks — something small like that, you know?

    And Jan (excellent to “see” you here, compadre!) thanks for chiming in!

  15. Mark Flowers says:

    Just reread this over the weekend, and I loved it just as much as I did the first time.

    One quick point on technology: he never uses a brand name, but it is pretty clear that Lucky is constantly plugged into an ipod or some other mp3 player – he is constantly talking about his “music.”

    On second reading, I definitely agree that Ginny was underwritten compared to Lucky’s parents (especially his mom), aunt and uncle, and even grandfather. She even almost fell into the category of Manic Pixie Dream Girl (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manic_Pixie_Dream_Girl) except for King’s very wise decision to it never even remotely possible that she would get together with Lucky.

    One of the parts I had forgotten was when Lucky admits to having completely lied to the reader in an earlier passage, about a very important piece of information – the way he admits the truth is heartbreaking at the same time that it opens up his unreliability in crazy ways. Is he *actually* seeing ants? Is this a book about magic realism, or a book about a kid with severe hallucinations? Or both?

    So many more thoughts, but I’ll leave off for now.

    • Sarah Couri says:

      Thanks, Mark! We talk about rereading a lot here, so I’m really glad to hear what you had to say on your reread.

      About Lucky’s unreliability: that had occurred to me, but for me, based on my own read, I’m not sure I buy the extra layer theory. It has to do with what danah boyd talked about in her blog post that I linked to in the post — about how teens don’t really see themselves in bully/victim roles, don’t use that language, etc. For me, that false memory was a lie that he told even himself, a story that he preferred to the actual, true memory; that’s how he recast his abusive situation into more removed “drama.” I thought the false memory was a part of what made the first person narrative strong and deeply specific to Lucky. In the end, I think of him as unreliable in that we all are, to a degree, but not Unreliable. If you see what I mean. Put another way: I believe that he believes he sees ants.

      A part of why I don’t quite buy it is for what it does to the narrative arc and all that lovely character growth Lucky goes through. If the ants are all in his head, if he’s ultimately that untrustworthy, then I’m not sure his hard-won development counts, either.

      But all of that’s based on my single read, and I’m open to hearing more, especially since you’ve just revisited it!

  16. Mark Flowers says:

    Sarah – I think that’s an excellent point to separate out his honesty about the bullying incident from his other statements. In fact, I think there are at least 4 different categories of statements you could analyse to see his reliability/unreliability (details of freshman year, details of the current summer, dreams about grandpa, “the ants”) – but this isn’t really the place for an English paper.

    I do want to point out that he doesn’t just lie/omit the fact that he was the victim in the “banana incident” but also repeatedly denies ever having suicidal thoughts – obviously part of the same issue, but a more systematic unreliability throughout the novel.

    Anyway, I don’t think it’s crucial to say that he’s lying about this or that, or this is the answer. The reason I think it’s interesting for the purposes of this discussion is to see the layers of thought and complexity that King has obviously built into the narrative. She wants us to think about how each of those 4 categories (or more) should be weighted, how they interact with each other, etc. And that tells me that this is a really remarkable novel.

  17. Sarah Couri says:

    Oh, I see, Mark! I misunderstood your point initially. (I think I have the more formal Unreliable Narrator on my mind from…other posts!) But thank you, I think we are on the same page. And, no worries, no need to write an English paper here. (Unless you are inclined to.)

    For the most part, I think we are agreeing more than disagreeing, which is also exciting to discuss. There are always so many nuances and different facets to admire in these mini love fests. You know what I personally enjoyed, and didn’t mention in my review? His dreams. They were so fluid and dreamlike — really effective. Often in fiction dreams are just extensions of the story and don’t seem to be all that, well, dreamlike. But Lucky’s were: changeable, strange, a reworking of his everyday life. And they still contributed to the major themes and ideas in the book.

  18. Jennifer says:

    I’m in the middle of this right now and really enjoying it, but what’s taking me out of the story isn’t any of the things you mentioned, but the fact that it’s taking place in my hometown. It doesn’t not feel like Arizona, but it doesn’t feel like a Tempe story to me. And this is so nitpicky and personal to me and not a real criticism of the book, but what I picture as I’m reading is not Tempe so every time it’s mentioned it takes me out of the book for a moment.

    • Sarah Couri says:

      Jennifer, that is funny, I forgot you’re originally from AZ. It’s so hard to predict what will throw you out of a book, and so hard to jump back in once you’ve popped out.

      That said, I am really looking forward to rereading this one once I’m done with my (terrifying) stack of first reads. There are so many people so in love with this book, and they’ve given so many good (and impassioned!) arguments in favor of it that I really hope I can get out of my own way this second time.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] Couri at Someday My Printz Will Come touched on this area in her post about Everybody Sees the Ants by A.S. King: “And while I [...]

  2. [...] . “A.S. King and C. J. Bott Talk About Bullying” (English Journal 2012). “But Does Everybody Love the Ants?” by Sara Couri (SLJ October 5, 2011). ”Bullying = Torture? A.S. King and Everybody [...]

Speak Your Mind

*