Picture Me Perplexed: The Appropriateness of Meg Rosoff’s Picture Me Gone – Review by Judy Jester
Perguntador is my new favorite word. I find myself saying it over and over again. It is Portuguese and means “one who asks too many questions.” It is also the endearment given to the narrator of Picture Me Gone by her father. After having read Meg Rosoff’s novel twice, it could apply to me too.
My goddaughter is eleven this summer. For the past year she‘s coveted what my eighth graders are reading. I had steered her away from Twilight a few years earlier when the movies first started coming out, but when her peers were reading The Hunger Games and Divergent, it was a tougher sell to wait a bit. She wants to be perceived as a good reader and carrying around thick, “big kid” books is one way to do that. She’s also sees herself as a teenager though she’s still far from it.
So when my librarian asked the other day about the appropriateness of Picture Me Gone for sixth graders, I wasn’t quite sure how to respond. It lacks most of the hallmarks of censored YA lit. No one is being abused. No teenagers are engaged in sexual behaviors or experimenting with drugs. In its 239 pages, I can recall three curses, all in vexing situations. There is a son born out-of-wedlock and one of the secondary characters is a lesbian. Other than that, there is very little that might require explanation. But is it appropriate for sixth graders? Is it appropriate for Carolina?
First, let me say that it is an excellent mystery, and I am not a fan of mysteries. Mila and her father spend Easter vacation searching for her father’s best friend. Matthew disappeared one morning just before their planned visit from England. We learn that the missing man has a year-old son and an unsympathetic wife. They had previously lost a son three years before in a car accident. Mila, who is quite adept at unraveling people and puzzles, figures out that another son, the product of an affair, has been hidden from his wife and wonders if Matthew, who had been driving the night his oldest son died, might have been drunk at the time.
I’m trying not to divulge too much while still explaining the nature of my quandary. The mess that Matthew has wrought is surely very adult, but there’s nothing titillating about it. Instead, even as a twelve-year-old, Mila recognizes the sadness of the situation and worries about it, wondering if all adults are capable of this level of betrayal. On the cusp of adolescence, she’s also struggling during this odyssey to determine what makes you an adult. At one point she muses:
“In theory, I would like to live a transparent life. I would like my life to be as clear as a new pane of glass … But if I am completely honest, I have to acknowledge secrets too painful even to tell myself. There are things I consider in the deep dark of night, secret terrors… I could easily tell either of my parents how I feel, but what would they say? Don’t worry, darling, we will do our best never to die? We will never ever leave you, never contract cancer or walk in front of a bus or collapse of old age? We will never leave you alone, not ever, to navigate the world and all of its complexities without us?
They will leave me. It is the first thing you learn that makes you no longer a child.” (199)
This struggle to determine who you are as well as who you might be is an age-appropriate and engaging conflict. That Mila is the same age as sixth graders is not lost on me. Some sixth graders will be ready for this discussion. Others will not.
Then there’s the writing. Rosoff, just like she did in What I Was, knocks my socks off. Her characters are well-developed, her pacing is spot-on, and as you can see above, she knows how to turn a phrase. She also included a sub-plot involving Mila’s best friend, who seems an awful lot like Matthew.
Mila is also a superb role model. She’s smart without being a smart aleck, compassionate, and keenly observant. Her relationship with her parents is warm and loving. I want kids to get to know her – perhaps to want to be like her.
But luckily unlike milk cartons, there are no expiration dates on books. So to answer both my own and my librarian’s question, I’d recommend Picture Me Gone discriminately to those who show themselves ready for it and I’d talk it up more with older students. For those readers who haven’t already met Mila by eighth grade, I’d heartily recommend they exchange “how-do-you-dos?”. When I feel Carolina’s ready for it, I’ll gladly introduce her myself. No questions asked.
Judy Jester is an eighth grade English teacher at Kennett Middle School in Landenberg, PA and a co-director of the Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project at West Chester University. She blogs with two colleagues at http://thirdandrosedale.blogspot.com and occasionally on her own at http://firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @judyjester.