Nothing by Janne Teller, translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken. Atheneum Books for Younger Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. 2010. Originally published in Danish as Intet in 2000. Personal copy.
The Plot: On the first day of school, Pierre Anthon announces to his classmates, “Nothing matters. I’ve know that for a long time. So nothing’s worth doing. I just realized that.” He walks away, climbs the tree in front of his house, and taunts his classmates. “It’s all a waste a time.” “In a few years you’ll all be dead and forgotten and didly-squat, nothing, so you might just as well start getting used to it!” Good in school? “ There’ll always be someone who is better.” Fame and achievement may be in your future? “And then you’ll find out that fame and the big wide world are outside of you, and inside there’s nothing, and always will be, no matter what you do.” Love? “First you fall in love, then you start dating, then you fall out of love, and then you split up again.”
Agnes and her classmates realize quickly they have to get Pierre Anthon out of the tree. They have to stop him telling them that they, their hopes, fears, present, are nothing. “We didn’t want to live in the world Pierre Anthon was telling us about.”
They try words. They try stones. Pierre Anthon stays in the tree and his taunts continue. Finally they come up with a plan: They will prove to him that life has meaning, that it is more than nothing. They will collect things that matter to prove Pierre Anthon wrong. Will it work? What will be found, and lost, along the way?
The Good: This is a stunning, heart shattering, haunting book that will result in many discussions about whether Pierre Anthon is right or wrong in his philosophy, as well as the reactions and actions of his peers. How far will Agnes (the narrator) and her friends will go to stop Pierre Anthon?
Nothing is the first translated work to receive a Printz Honor; it was originally published in Denmark in 2000. The translator’s note explains that the translation retains much of the original. Names remain the same; the setting is still a Danish town, the grade still called seventh even though the closer American fit is eighth, both age wise (ages 13 and 14) and school wise (it is the last year of school before moving up to a larger school). Unexplained in the note is the decision to retain the original dates of the book: it is set in the school year 1992 to 1993. Those more familiar with Denmark may see significance in those years.
Agnes tells this story, and her tone brings you into the story, so you share the fear and frustration and growing anger she and her classmates feel about Pierre Anthon and what they are “forced” to do to stop him. The format of the story is wonderful. Various sections of the book (not always chapter headings) contain a handful of words, chilling in their starkness sentence, standing alone in the middle of the page. They introduce something that will be said (Pierre Anthon’s original statement of nothingness) or emphasize an action (“It was then that Pierre Anthon stood up.”) Pay attention, this tells us. These words matter.
“I looked down at my bare feet and decided Gerda was going to pay.” Up to this point, the “heap of meaning” the teens put together are objects that matter to them. An old doll, a hymnbook, things collected from neighbors. The heap of meaning grows, but was what was being collected really a collection of things that mattered? Dennis is forced to hand over his complete Dungeons & Dragons books after he attempts to hold back four, so he turns on Sebastian to give up his fishing rod, who makes Richard give up his soccer ball, who then makes Laura forsake her favorite earrings.
At that point, Agnes tries to deflect attention from her newly acquired green wedge sandals but Gerda doesn’t fall for it. The sandals join the heap of meaning. Home without her sandals, Agnes thinks “I looked down at my bare feet and decided Gerda was going to pay.” The teens have gotten to the heart of it: the pile of meaning must contain that which is truly meaningful. They have also begun to stray, because the motivation changes. It is now about finding not what is most meaningful to someone, but, rather, what will hurt someone else the most. All the better if the someone else was instrumental in your own loss. The pressure and, yes, manipulation steadily increase as the teens realize the power they have over each other.
This is the perfect example of the deep discussions that can result from Nothing. Does this change in motivation matter? How do you define what has meaning? Is it what someone else decides? Is it what hurts the most to give up? How does that meaning shift now that it’s been sacrificed, and can it be restored? As the book ends, as this tale plays out to its chilling, inevitable end, do Agnes and her friends succeed in creating a heap of meaning? Do they discover the meaning of Nothing? Do they discover meaning? And, if so, at what price?
This is a bleak, dark book. It is not double rainbows and ponies. Personally, I was blown away by it and think it’s a great book and am pleased to see it get recognition. That said, many people will hate it — not because it’s a bad book but because it is not a happy, hopeful book. Bad things happen.I can easily see people confusing their distaste for where this book goes (and it goes there) with a judgment on the book itself. That would be a mistake. Nothing is unsettling. It won’t be for every reader, true. But those readers who it is for? Will adore it; will love that there is something out there that is more than sparkle and false hope and romance. They will love a book that asks hard questions without easy answers, a book that will give them a safe place to grapple with tough questions. It is for teens who are already reading bleak, sad, haunting books, of course. You know you have them in your library. Let them know up front: this book will bother you. This book will make you mad. This book will make you think.