Follow This Blog: RSS feed
Someday My Printz Will Come
Inside Someday My Printz Will Come

Far Far Away: Once upon a time…

Cover image Far Far Away, Tom McNeal
Knopf Books for Young Readers, July 2013
Reviewed from Final Copy

It is perhaps the most polarizing title of the year. Love, hate, and debate about audience have all bubbled up around Tom McNeal’s Far Far Away. A National Book Award finalist, the novel also has five starred reviews and has made four of the year’s best lists; clearly, there is a lot of love for this book. But whenever I discuss Far Far Away with someone who didn’t like it, they don’t just dislike the book, it’s more like disdain.

I’m not one of those people but I’m not quite on the side of adoration either. McNeal’s most prominent theme is story—its power and our lives as stories are two variations that we see in the novel. McNeal’s use of storytelling (specifically, fairy tales) as a major theme is done well enough, but when analyzed with other elements of the novel such as voice, style, and characters, Far Far Away is a book made up of discrete notes that, when played together, make a dissonant sound.

Many of those notes are good enough on their own. There are a couple ways to interpret it, but one reading of the novel’s main theme is that as teenagers are going through the hard work of identity formation, they lack control. Jeremy exemplifies this idea as he is guided and watched over by Jacob Grimm. Similarly, Ginger is not motivated to spend time with Jeremy because of a real interest in him; she has fallen under the spell of the Sten Blix’s Prince Cake (or at least, that’s how I read it). Her decisions are not entirely her own; she is controlled by an adult. Over the course of the novel we see Jeremy begin to assert little bits of control over his own narrative, but ultimately, this is Jacob’s book so we never see Jeremy or Ginger mature. In fact, when they are held prisoner by Sten it is Jacob who brings about their rescue, because it is his story and his actions that drive the narrative.

The multiple layers of narrative aren’t handled cleanly though so we end up with interesting ideas that don’t work together. Controlling one’s destiny is a powerful young adult theme, but does it work as theme when the young adult characters aren’t actually the characters who fulfill this idea?

Jacob Grimm as first person narrator is probably the sole source of the novel’s dissonance, because although it is technically first person, Far Far Away is functionally third person due to Jacob’s ability to follow any character. At the beginning of the book, it seems that Jacob is going to narrate this story because he just happens to be the friendly ghost/guardian who looks after the abandoned and neglected Jeremy. Jacob, as a historical figure, is significant because of the modern fairy tale style the novel uses so we accept his presence. Then later, it turns out that Jacob has sought out Jeremy to watch over as a kind of penance for his coldness to his nephew. At this point it’s clear that Jeremy and Ginger are merely players in Jacob’s quest to rewrite a past wrong.

In theory, this is a fascinating concept. But the execution lacks the focus necessary to make the themes of storytelling, neglect, and adolescence cohere. While Jacob’s authorial voice is strong throughout the novel, it’s perhaps too strong, too self-consciously an author’s voice. I wanted to care about Jeremy and Ginger, two teens who long to go “far, far away,” but it’s hard to do when they never become living, breathing characters.

That’s not to say that Jeremy and Ginger are poorly written; in fact, they are written to be archetypes–he, the shy boy and she the reckless girl who share a dream of getting out of their town. They are both neglected children in need of saving. They are the characters Jacob needs them to be, but without any depth, it’s hard to get invested in their lives as Jacob has.

Of course, he’s got a lot at stake with Jeremy as Jacob repeatedly mentions. If McNeal didn’t remind us that Jacob is with Jeremy because he is stuck in Zwischenraum (a kind of purgatory) it might be easy to wonder if there was any point to the story, as the plot meanders along until the sudden decision for Jeremy to try to win the money to save his house on a television game show, Uncommon Knowledge. From that incident, the novel moves quickly to the abduction and through to the resolution. The pacing is definitely a problem but the story also feels padded, as though McNeal put the game show plot in to fill out the story.

That unevenness may also be due to the book’s structure and organization. There are no chapters in Far Far Away, only sections separated by an engraving of a skeleton grabbing a small child. Rereading the text definitely made me more aware of the loose structure, which in theory should work for a novel that is aiming for a fairy tale quality. But as I mentioned before with the themes, the execution is mishandled, mostly because McNeal seems to be aiming for fairy tale and dream-like at the same time. Ostensibly these two styles should dovetail nicely, but fairy tales have a firm structure for a concise plot that is usually thematically rich. Instead, the plot unfolds as though Jacob were recounting a dream he had, stopping in places to provide us with backstory or commentary, and never really going anywhere at all until everything happens at once. This would work if there weren’t so many fairy tale tropes and images throughout the text (the magic cakes, love at first sight, orphaned and lost children, and riddles stood out to me). That’s not even getting into the various ways fairy tales are significant to Jeremy and Ginger.

It doesn’t hold up to intense scrutiny but I still admired everything McNeal attempted to do with Far Far Away. The pieces that don’t quite add up are there because this novel doesn’t succeed as metatext, or as a young adult narrative, or as a fairy tale, but it is certainly a book that has lingered in my mind. I keep coming back to that main theme of storytelling. As readers, story is part of our daily existence, but McNeal tries to show us that we’re all the authors of our own story. While it will remain an imperfect work, that theme will always stand out to me as one of the most interesting ideas in a YA novel this year.

I didn’t talk about the town of Never Better, but what did you think? Intentionally vague or beautifully anytown? And how about Possy, the missing child, or McRaven, the secretly lovesick deputy? What did you think about McNeal’s tertiary characters (and their names!)? Let’s discuss in the comments!

About Joy Piedmont

Joy Piedmont is a librarian and technology integrator at LREI - Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School. Prior to becoming a librarian, Joy reviewed and reported for Entertainment Weekly’s PopWatch. She reviews for SLJ and is the President of the Hudson Valley Library Association. When she’s not reading or writing about YA literature, she’s compulsively consuming culture of all kinds, learning to fly (on a trapeze), and taking naps with her cat, Oliver. Find her on Twitter @InquiringJoy, email her at joy dot piedmont at gmail dot com, or follow her on Tumblr. Her opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, HVLA or any other initialisms with which she is affiliated.


  1. I think I am in the same boat as you. I did not love this book but I did enjoy it. I am interested in the animosity that people have reacted with to it. I understand that it is different than other YA titles but I don’t see how that is necessarily a bad thing. I find that everything in this story is vague, the town, the time period and the character’s motivations. Everything seems old but new, everyone is bad but good and everything seems fantastical but ordinary. Even the age group this book is directed toward is left vague. Jeremy and Ginger are teenagers but I have seen this book on Mock Newbery lists and there is no reason it can’t be read by a younger audience. Also, I felt like there were many stories that were put into one book. It was not written for wide appeal but there is a specific audience for this book.

  2. Karyn Silverman says

    I did not like this book, for all sorts of reasons. Moving past the personal, I thought there was some great stuff (Jacob Grimm’s voice) and some pointless, needlessly drawn out parts (the game show). It also wobbled from fairy tale to realistic horror, which struck me as a flaw, and then pulled its punches — unless it’s a middle grade novel, in which case that might be developmentally appropriate?

    All that said, I think this is a serious contender and won’t be surprised at all if it picks up a sticker, although it’s probably too divisive to have a shot at the gold.

  3. Karyn Silverman says

    Oh, and there’s a great writeup and discussion over at Heavy Medal about this one:

  4. Elizabeth Burns says

    I didn’t read Ginger as being under the spell of anything — I didn’t read this with that “lack of control” at all. I wish I had more time to reread right now, because I would give it a new reading with those words in mind. But, for now, I saw this as taking place in a very real world, told via a person-ghost using fairy tale language, but that there never was anything fantastical or magical helping other than a bit of a ghost. So those tropes/things are there but not with any real power.

    I thought of this as for younger readers, at first, but when the ending came — the dual kidnapping, the being held — it was so real-world horror that I understood it to be more teen. Or, to put another way, I can see this being a good book that appeals to both higher end Newbery and younger end Printz.

    • Joy Piedmont says

      I think you’ve hit the nail on the head in terms of audience, Liz. I can easily see the Newbery and Printz committees discussing this book, because I could probably make an argument for both a children’s and YA audience. I don’t know enough about Newbery criteria, but I suspect this book has more YA literary quality than children’s (if that makes any sense).

  5. I thought the biggest fault was the overall pacing. The initial big build-up seemed to be the game show and that just completely fizzled out. I thought Jacob’s voice and the relationship that developed with Jeremy was the really fascinating part of this story, but it kept getting shoved aside to include specific plot twists. Overall, as a reader I was unsatisfied. As a critical reader, the author’s attempt at a fractured fairy tale wasn’t consistently twisted enough as a result of a lack of character development and choppy pacing.

  6. I’m one of those that loved the story. LOVED IT! It is my favorite or tied for favorite as winner of the year. What did I love about it? It was a modern fairy tale. It has the pacing and melodrama of all good fairy tales. The story bumbles along and suddenly you, the reader, realize what is happening and you want to shout through the pages of book, “Don’t do that…” For lovers of fairy tales, like me and my adult daughter, this book was a rare treat. I think the Printz committee should take note because there are so few unique fairy tales written today (as compared to retellings.)

    That said, I have one note: I listened to the audiobook of Far Far Away and the voice actor, W. Morgan Sheppard, did a magical job with the voice of Jacob Grimm. Don’t believe me, have a listen here: Random House Audio Far Far Away

    So maybe the Odyssey Award is a more appropriate award for this masterpiece.

    Guess we’ll find out in a few weeks.

  7. Karyn Silverman says

    Interestingly, this is faring well so far in the Pyrite voting but received not a single vote in our local Mock Printz event this weekend, although there had been some support rolling into the conversation. What was cited was the lack of agency by Jeremy and the question of whether this works as a YA book given our local groups working set of criteria, which we expanded to include YA — not appeal, but with an eye towards developmental assets. We also talked about how the main character is really Jacob Grimm and how we like him but Jeremy’s story is a mess — what is the Finder of Occasions, really? Why the game show? Does the seemingly deliberate timelessness/all times of the setting work? (Consensus: we see what McNeal was going for but consensus was that it didn’t succeed.) Lots of good conversation, but none of it ultimately to the advantage of the book in terms of considering it for our Mcok winner or even an honor.


  1. […] Far Far Away: Once upon a time… by Joy Piedmont at SLJ, 12/20/2013. Tom and Laura McNeal Earn National Acclaim As Young Adult […]

Speak Your Mind