Life: An Exploded Diagram by Mal Peet

Lynn: I’m reading for Newbery this year so I’ve gifted myself with only an occasional upper YA book and most of them have been on audio.  Few have shaken me as much as Mal Peet’s newest, Life:  An Exploded Diagram (Candlewick 2011).  When brilliant narrator Simon Vance (Brilliance 2011) read the last sentence, all I wanted to do was tear home, grab the book and start reading it again, this time to savor the language, ponder the connections and howl at the moon.  Peet, as always, pays scant attention to conventional wisdom, breaks most of the YA thou-shalt’s and creates a book that rocks the socks off readers.

Beginning with a birth during an air raid and ending with the planes flying into the World Trade Center, Peet’s scope is at once wide ranging and narrowly focused.  The book is told primarily by the adult Clem looking back at his first world-exploding discovery of sex and love against the backdrop of the unraveling British class structure and the Cuban Missile Crisis.  His relationship with upper-class Frankie would have horrified both sets of parents so their stolen time together had to be planned like a battle campaign.  Focused entirely on each other, Clem and Frankie are oblivious to the larger world where other battle campaigns are in motion.  An unseen narrator alternates with the lovers’ intensely personal moments, revealing in scathing caustic fury, just how close the world came to having the button pushed by madmen.  I was 13 during the Cuban Missile Crisis and Peet’s writing brought back my sense of helpless infuriated terror like it was yesterday. This is a book that is tender and terrifying, that whispers sweetly and shouts in anguished anger.  Life and death, love and war – we humans are inescapably formed by the impact of both forces – and Mal Peet explores this theme with as explosive a power as I have ever encountered.  Is it conventional YA?  No, but thoughtful teens will connect with the passion and the honesty in these pages.

Cindy: I, too, listened to this book…and pardon the pun, I was blown away. I’ve been delayed writing my portion of the blog because I am dipping into the hardcover and keep getting sucked into the story again and again. But here’s a shot at it. The book opens with endpapers illustrated with an exploded diagram of a rocket and English teachers could have a blast (sorry) with that metaphor alone for a week. The story is divided into three sections: Putting Things Together, Blowing Things Apart, and Picking Up the Pieces. The chapter titles alone are worth the price of admission:

The Heartbroken Nazi
A Wink in the Barley
The Girl Who Ate His Heart Bums a Smoke
You Learn Nothing About Sex from Books Especially If They’re By D. H. Lawrence
The Limited Opportunities for Obtaining Contraceptives in North Norfolk in 1962
The Shifty Word Standstill

Lynn has mentioned many of the strengths of the book so I’ll take another tack. I want to address audience with this book as I’ve heard some rumblings that it is an adult book masquerading as a YA publication. I will agree that Life will appeal to adults and it would make a great book club selection. Angelina Benedetti, author of the Booksmack “35 Going on 13” column for LJ, listed it among the Best of 2011: YA Books for Adults and it certainly deserves a place among those other titles on her great list. I acknowledge that the adult sensibilities of the grown Clem looking back on his life will be offputting to some who like their YA lit to be completely teen-centric (exit adults stage left in Chapter One) but most high school students are regular readers of adult literature and we often underestimate their interests, capabilities and predilections when we assume we know what they want to read. I have many strong 8th graders reading and enjoying Mal Peet’s Tamar, another complex historical fiction with teen and adult characters and this story will appeal to those readers who have moved on to high school. Do teens shy away from Stephen King novels like Pet Sematary with their adult sensibilities? No. The bulk of the novel is set during Clem’s teen years and his decision to try to get Frankie to “gather ye rosebuds while ye may” is appropriate and that tension alone will keep some teens turning the pages. In between those steamy pages is a rich story full of metaphor, meaty themes, and gorgeous writing. It’s an exploded diagram of life with all of its longing, sadness, love, humor, regret, indifference, anger, power plays and all the rest of the emotions that make us fully human. Don’t miss this one. Carpe diem! Pluck the day…or better yet..pluck this book off your nearest library or book store shelf.

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About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees. Follow Bookends on Twitter at @BookendsBlog. You can also find Cindy at @cdobrez and Lynn at @482april.

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