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Zac + Mia

Zac & Mia, A.J. Betts
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, September 2014
Reviewed from final copy

Remember when teens with terminal illnesses were the stuff of Lurlene McDaniels and also the Wakefield twins’ brother’s girlfriend? And not literary fodder.

Oh for the days of yore.

But the cancer book seems here to stay, and this one puts some spin on the tropes of the genre.

First off, the setting. There’s something about Australia that always appeals (it’s an upstart young country like us, but also not, and as a result is familiar enough but still new and a little exciting. This is why Australians win Printz recognition so often). In this case, it’s more than just Australia in the general sense — Zac’s family has an olive farm. And it seems really present and meaningful to him, in a way that I thought was effective for setting and for character growth.

Also, Zac: he’s a nice boy from a nice family making the most of a really crap set of circumstances and the way he crashes when being nice doesn’t work is a powerful moment. He’s not bigger than life the way so many protagonists are, he’s just real. His obsession with the numbers, his awareness of the secret world of cancer wards and cancer patients — this is rich character development, and Betts does a fabulous job with his voice. Zac shows a lot of himself in his narration, but it never becomes infodump; it all makes perfect sense coming from him.

But there’s also Mia, whom I did not buy so much; she didn’t ring true the same way. She’s a bit tropey (that’s not actually a word, is it? But I think it ought to be.) She’s the pretty girl in competition with her mum, the one who cares more about appearance than survival, who turns around thanks to the love of a good boy. She is larger than life, everything exaggerated a bit, and she comes across a bit as a device, especially when she gets her own voice; when it’s through Zac’s eyes, it’s ok that she’s serving a purpose, because for Zac she does.

On the up side again, I thought the side characters, especially the nurse, Nina, and fellow patient Cam, were rendered perfectly. Small details made them into whole people even with relatively little screen time; likewise Zac’s sister and mother.

Frankly, this is a long shot, and Mia, while not awful, is problematic enough as a character to take it out of the running entirely. But it’s also a lovely story about family and fight and how hard it is to be a trooper, and so I think you should all go out and read it right away. And then give it to a teen who won’t mind the flaws because it’s a darn good read. And if anyone can convince me that Mia is the way she is for good reason, I’ll bump this up a bit in the odds.

About Karyn Silverman

Karyn Silverman is the High School Librarian and Educational Technology Department Chair at LREI, Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School (say that ten times fast!). Karyn has served on YALSA’s Quick Picks and Best Books committees and was a member of the 2009 Printz committee. She has reviewed for Kirkus and School Library Journal. She has a lot of opinions about almost everything, as long as all the things are books. Said opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, YALSA or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @InfoWitch or e-mail her at karynsilverman at gmail dot com.

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