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You know nothing, Mim Malone: Mosquitoland

Mosquitoland coverMosquitoland, David Arnold
Viking, March 2015
Reviewed from final copy

There are major spoilers ahead so if you don’t want to know major plot points for Mosquitoland proceed with caution.

At a certain point in one’s reading life, first person narration immediately triggers suspicion of an unreliable narrator. It’s not a terrible starting point because when do people ever tell stories without bias? The conventional wisdom is that everyone is the hero in their own story and this is definitely true of Mim Malone, our unreliable, letter-writing, narrator who runs away from the titular Mosquitoland (her new home in Mississippi) to rescue her ailing mother in Ohio. Mim is smart enough that we can believe in her ability to make the journey and navigate the various practical obstacles, but broken enough for us to question her emotional stability and judgment. Her voice is clear and distinct in David Arnold’s quirky road trip odyssey.

This is his debut novel and landed on our list after earning three stars. Amid the buzz however, there’s been criticism aimed at Mim’s understanding and use of her “one-sixteenth” Cherokee heritage. On her blog, American Indians in Children’s Literature, Debbie Reese has written extensively about this issue; I encourage you to check out her posts including one in which David Arnold responds to the criticism. Since that conversation has been so thoroughly and thoughtfully covered, let’s look at some of the other criteria to determine the possibility of seeing Mosquitoland earn a special sticker this winter.

Although the unreliable narrator can easily feel like an overdone YA lit trope if handled poorly, it works well here. The adjustment in voice between Mim’s letters and the regular narration adds to the reader’s distrust of her as a reliable source. In her letters, she speaks with authority, reflecting on various scenes from her past. Within the book’s narration though, we see a slightly less filtered Mim; a girl who is making things up as she goes and doing her best to hold on to the few things she knows to be true.

A single sentence near the end of the book creates a satisfying pay off to Mim’s development. “I am a child. I know nothing about anything. And even less about everything.” Mim (who had no idea that her mother was in rehab and not terminally ill as she had thought) quickly comes to the revelation that every teen has at some point in their adolescence: that the world is so much bigger than they knew, that people are complicated and contradictory, and that their narrow perspective may not always be reliable. Despite all of the experiences Mim has had that could have opened her consciousness of the world, it’s the most personal experience at the end of her journey that forces her to see how myopic she’s been. It’s a common coming of age arc but it feels hard won and deserved.

Another major theme Arnold works with is mental illness. Mim suffers from anxiety and describes her doctors and various treatment she’s had. I was uncomfortable with Mim’s conclusion that a medicated life is no life at all. Reading her as an unreliable narrator doesn’t give this message an extra dimension or allow the reader to understand Mim’s decision as harmful or potentially dangerous. As I wrote last week, literature for young adults bears a responsibility to the intended audience. This doesn’t mean that every book must have a positive, uplifting message with characters always doing the right thing–it’s banned books week, folks, I’m not looking for moral perfection in my reading–but when it comes to mental health, race, and sexuality, misinformation is a problem with accuracy, one of the criteria for Printz evaluation. This, along with Mim’s engagement with negative stereotypes of Native people,* is probably enough to take the book out of the Printz conversation.

There’s no question that David Arnold can write. His sentences use wonderful rhythms and imagery, and Mim is truly a unique voice. Supported by a stronger story and fuller characters, I could make a case for this one, but the accuracy problems are too big. This is just my take though and I’ve seen some very positive reviews of Mosquitoland. It’s a divisive title so let’s talk in the comments.

*It is possible that David Arnold wants the reader to see Mim’s attitudes and behavior as insensitive, but it’s not clear in the text.

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. Eric Carpenter says

    From the printz criteria:
    Depending on the book, one or more of these criteria will apply:
    Story, Voice, Style, Setting, Accuracy, Characters, Theme, Illustrations, Design (including format, organization, etc.).
    So since this is a work of fiction why would accuracy apply? A work of fiction doesn’t need to be accurate in any way, just so long as it is internally consistent. If through Mim’s narration, she comes across as consistently ignorant about her Cherokee heritage then there shouldn’t be any issue. If however Mim’s narration had shown she had a fuller understanding of Cherokee culture then her actions, such as the lipstick war paint (as we come to understand them through her narration) would be inconsistent and therefore problematic.
    There seems to be a lot of instances in discussions of literature where we seem to conflate the narrator with the author. All the problems Reese points out on her websites are problems with something Mim writes, says, or does. But the reader’s only window into Mim’s words and actions is Mim’s narration. Why should the author or the book itself be held accountable to something that we learn about from a character (or in other cases from a narrator). All narrators are unreliable and first-person narrators most of all.

    • Joy Piedmont says

      “A work of fiction doesn’t need to be accurate in any way, just so long as it is internally consistent.”

      – This is an excellent point, but for realistic fiction (i.e.: fiction set in a world that is meant to reflect our own history or contemporary setting) accuracy is an important factor I look at. An example that’s unrelated to Mosquitoland is when I read a novel that didn’t accurately reflect the NYC school system, rendering the plot illogical because it was based on wrong information. In historical fiction, anachronisms push a novel towards speculative fiction, which means that accurate information is important.

      Going back to your argument about Mim: I’ve been really wrestling with this. And actually, since I wrote this post I’ve changed my mind about this five or six times. I think I’ve settled into agreement with you. The author’s beliefs aren’t relevant to a discussion about a character who does/says racist things, as long as there is evidence in the text and the character is consistent. I would need to do a second, very close reading of Mosquitoland to make this determination.

      • Eric Carpenter says

        I generally agree with you on cases such as your example of an inaccurate depiction of the NYC school system. But I also think there may be cases in which this would be allowable in a piece of realistic or even historical fiction if the information is being delivered by a narrator or character who may not fully understand the NYC school system. To use another example. If a character (or first person narrator) said that they were walking east on 5th avenue towards the Hudson River, we might scream inaccuracy but it could simply mean that that character doesn’t know their east from their west. (I am sure that if you asked a random sample of teenagers you ran into on the street to point west, more than zero of them would point the wrong way.)
        Does this make sense?

        • Eric,
          Not being familiar with NYC, I wouldn’t recognize that east/west error. That error wouldn’t matter because it doesn’t shape how I think about a people. That makes that east/west example different from the problems I saw in what Mim knows about Cherokees. Those errors aren’t seen as errors, but they are errors, and they shape what people think they know about Cherokees.

          I’m getting a lot of hits to my site from here. Thank you for linking to my posts on MOSQUITOLAND.


          • Eric Carpenter says

            But Mim’s errors are the character’s errors and not the books. Author has the right to write characters who are good, bad, despicable, racist, sexist, misogynistic, misanthropic, or any other label or characteristic. The quality of their books on a purely aesthetic level can’t be linked to a book’s politics or its character’s labels, attributes, ignorance, or intelligence.
            From the printz criteria: the charge of the printz committee is to select the best young adult book “best” being defined solely in terms of literary merit.
            So for this discussion (and any other printz discussion) how a book shapes what people think about any given group is completely irrelevant to it’s printz worthiness.
            As for outside of the Printz discussion, I think we (librarians) should pay special attention to the “progressive pre-banning via weeding” that Roger Sutton talks about in his piece on the Horn Book blog today. Just because we don’t like how a book “shapes what people think” does not mean the book doesn’t have a place in our libraries.

        • Joy Piedmont says

          Eric, you make absolute sense. Of course a character can convey incorrect information. However, it will only advance character development and/or plot if the reader knows that the character’s making a mistake. It’s probably tricky to accomplish that in a first person; however, not impossible.

          • Eric Carpenter says

            And that is where a committee member may be able to discuss this through the criteria. If the writing doesn’t accomplish this, that is if the reader doesn’t feel that the Story, Voice, Style, Setting, Characters, Theme, Illustrations, or Design let the reader know that the character is wrong, then that’s a legitimate strike against the book in terms of literary merit. But one that would have to be discussed at the table to find out if other members feel similarly.

  2. Brenda Martin says

    Thank you, Eric. You have said it much better than I could ever have. While Reese has some valid points about portrayals of Native Americans in works of children’s and teen lit, she has been completely off-base with her critique of this one. It’s honestly become a detriment to her cause.

  3. I think part of the problem here is that when it comes to representation of Native characters and cultures, white authors are so often coming from a place of “not knowing what they don’t know.” If a character’s actions reflect consistent misrepresentations rooted in ignorance, or consistently reflect prejudiced views based on dominant stereotypes– is this a “realistic” depiction of a character who would hold those views, or does it reflect the author’s *own* ignorance and bias? What about a video book trailer for Mosquitoland that uses the most basic stereotypes about Native people in showing a girl putting on “war paint”? I think Debbie Reese explores those fundamental questions in important ways on her blog– and also asks: what stories are white authors trying to tell when they “accurately” depict prejudiced characters without contextualizing those views for readers? Who do they imagine the readers of those stories to be?

  4. Anne Bennett says

    I might be a bit controversial here but hear me out. Have you ever noticed how many mentally ill people in the middle of some delusion or hallucination claim to talk to God, take the name of the Lord in vain, or in some way besmirch Christianity? I’ve often wondered why that is. Why God,? Why Christianity? It is so horrifying to be near someone who is carrying on with some profane rant invoking God and blaspheming him. But I tell myself the person is not well and needs help.

    Mim is not well and needs help. The only thing she is doing is as an affront to the Cherokee people instead of to Christians as in my above example. I was horrified by her actions and her words not so much because she was offensive but because I recognized in her actions those of a sick girl who desperately needed help.


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