The Plot: 1965 Australia. Charlie Bucktin, 13, is reading a book on a hot summer night when there is a knock on his window. It is Jasper Jones, the town “bad boy,” and he needs Charlie’s help. Charlie climbs out the window, not realizing he is leaving his childhood behind. Jasper’s secret shakes Charlie, yes; and it’s the beginning of Charlie looking at his town, his world, his family and friends with new eyes and seeing what’s hidden.
The Good: A classic coming of age, as Charlie leaves childhood behind him. I don’t want to say all that Charlie discovers, slowly; part of the process for the reader is going with Charlie on that journey. It all begins with Jasper knocking on Charlie’s window, forcing Charlie to leave behind the safety of his books and his parents’ home. Charlie’s awareness doesn’t happen all at once; and some things (the racism against his best friend for being Vietnamese) aren’t new to him. What is new is the way he looks at the world.
Charlie’s world is that of Australia about forty years ago. Jasper Jones creates a strong sense of place and time. A time where kids and teens have certain freedoms to explore and roam. A time when people’s casual and thoughtless and cruel racism and prejudices were open. In many ways, a smaller world than today. Charlie’s father tries to expand his son’s world in the only way his father knows, books. Those books are not the real world, but they prepare Charlie for the real world he realizes is all around him after Jasper knocks at his window.
Based on what Jasper shows Charlie, what he tells him, Charlie becomes a bit obsessed with those who inflict evil and those who let evil happen. He researches true crime in the library, including such then-current cases as Eric Cooke and Gertrude Baniszewski. What is “evil”? Why do people act, or not act?
I reread this book almost immediately; enjoying even more the layered story telling, the strong setting, the varied cast of characters. There is a magnificent chapter about a cricket game, and even though I know less than nothing about cricket, I was on the edge of my seat. There is also a romance. But, most importantly, there is Charlie.
Confession: I didn’t like this book at first. No, really. It was a DNF back in January. For a few reasons, it just didn’t “click” with me. But. But, people I knew and respected had picked this for a Printz Honor. I put it aside, knowing I’d take a second crack at it. And the second time, everything came together and this book really worked for me. Why? What had changed? I’m not sure; I wasn’t even going to mention it, except I think it’s important to note that how a reader reads a book can change. My first read focused on the character of Jasper (for various reasons, not a fan at first) and the mystery element (as a mystery-lover, I guessed the big mystery early on). My second read, I put these aside. I saw the Jasper/Huck Finn connections (one of the authors Charlie and his father read is Mark Twain), which made me appreciate what was happening with Jasper. And, I realized that this wasn’t a mystery book; or, rather, it didn’t matter whether I guessed things about it.
And, that’s all it took. A change of time, a different perspective, and a DNF becomes a Favorite Book Read in 2012.