NPR recently published a list of the 100 Best-Ever Teen Novels as nominated by their listeners. After arguing on FB about what makes a book YA (an ongoing discussion almost everywhere people talk about books) and screaming about the reasons why certian books were deemed not YA (A Tree Grows In Brooklyn. A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN!!!) I happily went through the list and added a ton to my To Be Read list over on Goodreads. I was thrilled that they listed all the books that had been nominated and added even more titles. I then hit the inter-library loan website and filled my greedy little mitts with new books.
Our narrator is Charlie Bucktin. It’s summer break in a small town in Australia and Charlie plans on spending his time off reading piles of books, working on his writing (his secret passion), and hanging out with his equally nerdy, best friend Jeffrey.
And all of this changes with the very first sentence of the book.
Jasper Jones is the town outcast. He’s fourteen years old, and whenever anything goes wrong in town, you can bet that Jasper is behind it. Your good kid stays out past curfew? That Jasper must have put him up to it. Some money goes missing. Where was Jasper? A few loaves of bread stolen? You know it was Jasper. The post office burns down? Who else but Jasper?
He’s become mythical in his badness, yet Charlie is thrilled when Jasper shows up at his window in the middle of the night, begging for help. Terrified at the thought of sneaking out, but even more scared that Jasper will think he’s a wimp, Charlie crawls out of the window and into the night.
And for the rest of his life he’ll wonder if he would have been better off had he told Jasper to go away and pulled the blankets over his head.
Jasper shows Charlie his secret and nothing can ever be the same. Not for Charlie, not for Jasper, not for the entire town. Something horrible has happened and if Charlie doesn’t start to keep secrets, Jasper will be blamed.
I loved the way Charlie was written. Silvey captured the amazing mixture of a thirteen year old bookish boy. One sentence shows him struggling with adult ideas and you can see him slowly taking the first few steps into adulthood. The next sentence shows him still made up of boyhood and giggles. It’s hilarious and heartbreaking.
The scenes between Charlie and Jeffrey are especially fantastic. Charlie has to keep his secrets from Jeffrey, and it’s killing him. He’s walking around feeling like he’s got a brick in his belly. He is holding on to information that no one should have, let alone a thirteen year old boy. His relationship with his mother is starting to spin into something dark and dangerous. He’s worried about Jasper. And then he gets into a debate with Jeffery about Superman versus Batman. And then how queer Jeffrey is versus how queer Charlie is. It’s pitch perfect and wonderful. There’s a lot in this book that is fantastic, but Silvey should be especially proud of how perfectly he wrote Charlie’s inner dialogue and his conversations with Jeffrey.
Like most thirteen year olds, Charlie really is two different people. He’s still a boy, which you see with Jeffrey, but he’s also growing up, and you see that with Jasper and with Charlie’s mom. He’s still able to ebb and flow between the two worlds. but you know that soon enough he’ll leave all the boyishness behind.
I really enjoyed the layers in this story. There’s the major plot of Jasper’s crisis that changes Charlie and then there’s his changing relationship with his mother. I wondered at times if the first caused the second. However, Charlie’s mother is clearly going through a crisis of her own, and Charlie was going to get dragged down into it even if Jasper hadn’t shown up. Jasper, simply by being who he is, gives Charlie the strength to question what he sees, to know when to speak up, and to know when to keep his head down. Charlie’s dad especially helps with that last one. Their relationship is wonderful to see and his dad tries to explain to him that some battles just aren’t worth it.
I honestly had no clue how this book was going to end. There is some heavy foreshadowing early on, but it felt way too easy and I refused to believe it. There are certain characters that I was sure would become important later on, but I couldn’t figure out why. I wanted to know if Charlie would reveal his secrets to anyone, and what the fallout would be if he did.
It was frustrating and sad and wonderful. It put me right back in the mindset of being thirteen and starting to see all the inaccuracies and injustices of the world and having no clue how to handle it. It reminded me of the times when you’re sure you can’t go to any adult for help because even if they think they understand, it’s not going to work out the way you know it should. You keep your head down and hang on to your friends. And you hope you’re doing the right thing and not destroying everything you love in the process.