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Thoughts on Alex: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore
Karyn Silverman, half of the genius behind Some Day My Printz Will Come, joins us to write about the last, lone Alex Award Winner yet to be covered here on AB4T. Take it away, Karyn!
Angela and Mark have been covered all of the Alex winners at this point except one.
And because Angela saw me moments after I finished that one, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore (FSG, 2012), with tear tracks down my cheeks and that radiant glow of a really excellent book shining from my face, she was kind enough to ask if I wanted to
gush write about it for AB4T.
A little backstory: The first person to mention Mr. Penumbra to me was a student. And she mentioned it several times, over several days, ranging from “I loved it!” to “Why haven’t you read it yet?” She’s also pressed the book on several friends, all of whom have loved it as well (she’s probably destined to be a librarian). So the teen appeal has been proven to my satisfaction. In fact, I would go so far as to say this is the quintessential adult book for teens.
I know, bold words! Let me explain.
We’ll start with the motley cast of characters. Main character Clay lives with an artist who is truly gifted and one of those perfect, perfectly successful 20-somethings who seem, mysteriously, to have it all together all the time. Then there’s Clay’s best friend, Neal, who invented software that creates perfect breasts (cue the dirty giggling here), a total adolescent male success fantasy (which is played with wonderfully and to sly comic effect throughout the book). And finally, there’s eventual love interest Kat, a Google girl (as in, employed by) and a bit of a manic pixie dream girl. All of them, except maybe Clay, are exceptional. All of them, except Clay, have transitioned from adolescence to early adulthood, with seemingly not even a pimple.
And then there’s Clay, hapless and charming, talented but not extraordinary. First he sold out (his big achievement? The new logo for a bagel company) and then the company whose paycheck he sold out for went under, leaving him unemployed. He’s the perfect everyman hero for teens uncertain where they belong in the world, thinking everyone else has it figured out and sure they’ve been left behind.
And it just gets better, because unemployment leads him to Mr. Penumbra’s bizarre bookstore – dust, towering shelves, cinematic in description and someplace every book lover will desperately want to visit – and that leads to the perfect fairy tale mashup of old book and new tech, of dusty coded tomes and Google’s mainframe. There’s adventure, mysterious figures, love and loss, 3-D modeling and book scanning alongside secret bibliophilic orders and ancient rituals. There is, in short, everything a reader wants and everything a coder wants: this hits exactly the spot today’s teens occupy, caught between an old order and a new, passionate about both and potentially lost in the transition, written with assurance and verve.
Plus a glow-in-the-dark cover, like the cherry on a sundae – and this is just as delicious.
About Angela Carstensen
Angela Carstensen is Head Librarian and an Upper School Librarian at Convent of the Sacred Heart in New York City. Angela served on the Alex Awards committee for four years, chairing the 2008 committee, and chaired the first YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adult committee in 2009. Recently, she edited Outstanding Books for the College Bound: Titles and Programs for a New Generation (ALA Editions, 2011). Contact her via Twitter @AngeReads.
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