THE ANTI-BOOK by Raphael Simon
Already I can see myself obsessing over the Goodreads reviews: Remember, it’s just one reader’s opinion, well, one hundred readers’ opinions… Okay, so maybe the book stinks, that doesn’t mean you do! I think you smell quite nice…
Until now, my career as a children’s author has been about hiding my identity. “The infamously anonymous Pseudonymous Bosch, secret author of the Secret Series.” The pseudonym was a gimmick, sure, but the anxiety was real. I wanted to write, to express myself, but I didn’t want to be exposed. So I disappeared.
Funnily enough, my new book is about a boy who wants not just himself but his entire world to disappear. (Spoiler alert: it does.) The Anti-Book is the most fantastical book I’ve ever written—“a Wizard of Oz for today’s generation,” says the optimistic jacket copy—but also the most personal.
When we meet him, 12-yr-old Mickey is experiencing the shock of his parents’ divorce—just as I did when I was his age. It sounds melodramatic, I know, but for me the end of my parents’ marriage meant the end of love. Or at least of unconditional love. If my parents could stop loving each other, theorized my preadolescent brain, then they could stop loving me.
My peers didn’t help. Taunting me with anti-gay slurs, they made me ashamed of something I had yet to admit aloud or even to whisper into my pillow. Perhaps my father was right to leave our family. Perhaps I wasn’t really loveable at all.
Mickey hides his feelings under a blanket of hostility. GET LOST! he tells everyone, over and over. Enter The Anti-Book: a blank book that he receives as a prize with a package of gum. The Anti-Book promises to make everything disappear. “To erase it, write it,” the book instructs. Not expecting anything to happen, Mickey writes a list of all the people and things he wishes would go away. His parents. His sister. Her bully of a boyfriend who calls everything Mickey does “gay.”(See anti-gay taunting above.) His dog. His house. His school.
And—poof!—it’s all gone. The desert landscape of Mickey’s childhood is literally deserted.
Of course, I couldn’t leave Mickey’s world totally empty. If nature abhors a vacuum, so do authors. The Anti-Book destroys but also creates. A strange anti-world springs up. There is a flying house, a tiny girl, a trail of golden poop, and much more. Each thing an inverted echo of Mickey’s past. In his quest to rebuild his old world, Mickey rediscovers his love for everything and everyone he has lost. Including himself.
To my mind, Mickey’s journey from despair to something like happiness, from an empty world to a full one, as much as it is a hero’s journey, or an anti-hero’s journey, it is a writer’s journey. He un-writes his life—and then rewrites it.
I’ll be frank: writing is agony. I procrastinate, then flagellate myself for procrastinating. I delete drafts, then desperately try to restore them. I spiral with self-doubt. I wonder why I ever became a writer. It’s no accident that blank or unfinished books have figured in so many of my novels. Writer’s block is practically the cornerstone of my writing.
Alas, writing is the only way I know to make myself feel better when I feel bad. I write my way into a hole, then I write my way out. I write to lose myself and also to find myself.
Which, not incidentally, is why many kids read.
Ten years ago, when I first came up with the idea of a book that makes the world disappear, I didn’t imagine that the Anti-Book would debut in a world that is actually disappearing. And yet, here we are. As I write these words, schools like Mickey’s are closed. Streets like his lie empty.
So much loss can be overwhelming for anyone, but especially for kids. Whether they’re experiencing divorce, or bullying, or just the everyday horror of a global pandemic, my hope is that Mickey’s story will provide a safe—and fun!—way for young readers to explore the emotional desert and find their way home.
Raphael Simon is an author who lives in Pasadena, CA, with his husband and twin daughters. He is definitely not the alter ego of infamously anonymous author Pseudonymous Bosch, writer of the New York Times bestselling Secret Series and the Bad Books.