Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith – Review by Cathy Blackler
Stories connect us. Stories challenge us. Stories heal us. Stories matter. As a parent, a high school teacher and a lifelong reader I can attest to the power of stories. Whether the last turn of the page brings with it tears, exhaustion, laughter, or sadness because the story has come to an end is of little consequence. What matters is how the story touches our lives; if we are lucky that touch may alter our trajectory even the slightest towards something we never saw coming.
“Just one week earlier, everything was perfect. Everything was Iowa blue plaid. Robby and I skated in Grasshopper Jungle. Shann Collins made me very horny. There were no books mentioning Catholics or masturbation available in the library at Curtis Crane Lutheran Academy. Ollie Jungfrau dreamed of internet porn and Saturday morning donuts with me and Johnny McKeon.”
These are the words of Austin Szerba, high school student at Curtis Crane Lutheran Academy in Blue Plaid Iowa. Austin’s compulsion to record his history and all of its events are the heartbeat of Andrew Smith’s latest work, Grasshopper Jungle. Readers will undoubtedly be jolted from their own blue plaid existence by Austin’s candor, transparency, and vulnerability. Sarcasm abounds as Austin and his best friend Robby Brees navigate the seductive jungle of adolescence, made steamier by a course of events that will have readers recalling elements of Louis Sachar’s Holes, M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs, the television series Lost, and Stephen King’s The Stand. Crazy, but true.
A practitioner of character development, Smith never balks at pushing both his characters and his readers to question, to explore, and to persevere. His masterful use of pop culture draws readers in, tethering them to his characters and facilitating page turning into the wee hours. Smith’s use of symbolism and figurative language add richness to Grasshopper Jungle and helps support the reader’s journey. The two-headed boy in the jar makes us all stop and ponder our own isolation and, perhaps, our propensity for two-headedness.
As the last page is turned, we are reminded once again that it all comes back to the story. Andrew Smith is a storyteller. Grasshopper Jungle is a journey through the fun house of a traveling carnival that our blue plaid existence has cautioned us against. It reminds us that the human experience, parts of which make for more polite conversation than others, is our experience. It carries with it no guarantees and the challenges it presents can be paralyzing. My students know this all too well. They have experienced mental hospitals, sickness, death, parenthood, homelessness, abuse, addiction, parents battling addiction, and confusion about their own identities, sexual and otherwise. Yet they show up. Grasshopper Jungle is a vehicle through which their experience, the human experience, in all its red-blooded glory, is offered up and tested. When it comes down to it, when all is said and done, Smith reminds us that we all have the power within to weather this human experience; to become unstoppable soldiers. Thank you, Andrew Smith. Let it Loose. Room 44 needs you.
Cathy Blackler teaches High School English in Southern California. A proud, card-carrying member of the #nerdybookclub, she served as her District’s Teacher of the Year during the 2012-2013 school year, is currently serving a three-year term on the California Young Reader Medal (CYRM) Committee, and was recently inducted into her High School’s Alumni Hall of Fame. She truly leads a reading life, and still owns the first book she purchased with her own money.