A few weeks ago I told the Facebook- and Twitter-spheres that I’d like to get some practice writing book reviews on my blog, in the hope of pitching reviews to newspapers or magazines in the future, and (with any luck) helping out a few fellow writers in the meantime. My friend and excellent writer Emily Freeman (Did you happen to catch her review of Dan Barry’s THE BOYS IN THE BUNKHOUSE in the Sunday, May 15 Star Tribune?) introduced me to Kathleen Glasgow, whose book GIRL IN PIECES I reviewed here a few weeks ago. Kathleen then introduced me to a contingent of other debut YA novelists, many of whom were kind enough to agree to have me practice my mad reviewing skills on their new books. If all goes according to plan, I’ll be reviewing YA books in my next several blog entries.
A question Emily and I had in one of our more recent conversations is What makes a book YA? If you recall, I thought that GIRL IN PIECES, although marketed as YA, could easily be read, enjoyed and mulled over by a larger audience. According to The Guardian, a “middle-grade” book might be suitable for ages 10-12; “teen,” 12-14; and YA, 14+. YA, according to this source, “is more likely to deal frankly with sex, tackle challenging issues and adult relationships, and feature swearing.” (The “new adult” category, FYI, presumably aimed at some older demographic than YA, has, according to The Guardian, the reputation as “YA with sexytimes.” I’m just telling you what I read.) Also in this Guardian article is something many of us know intuitively: that as many as 55% of YA titles are bought by adults–some, of course, purchased for young adults, but others enjoying Harry Potter (i.e., ageless) popularity.
I WOKE UP DEAD AT THE MALL is Judy Sheehan’s debut YA novel. She has written two other novels for adults, WOMEN IN HATS (2008) and AND BABY MAKES TWO (2005), and is a playwright and performer of considerable renown. What is evident from the very first page of I WOKE UP DEAD AT THE MALL is that Sheehan is also very funny. 16-year-old Sarah Evans’s narration of the story of her life after death begins as she wakes up in Minnesota’s Mall of America. Still dressed in the hideous bridesmaid’s dress she was wearing when she died, Sarah’s smart, incisive, take-no-prisoners voice made me laugh out loud on many occasions.
The cast of characters Sheehan has pulled together in Sarah’s death “cohort” includes several refreshingly un-stereotypical young people (a teen boy who is obsessed with skin care products, e.g., and another who is an excellent cook) who, like Sarah, have been murdered. Harry, Lacey, Nick, Alice and Declan each, in turn, tells his or her “death story;” in some cases–but not Sarah’s–there’s little to no mystery as to who killed who and why. Sarah, however, is loathe to believe and slow to accept that anyone would want to murder her. The solution to the puzzle of her murder resolves in a timely and engaging fashion.
It is not the only puzzle solved in the story, however. Friendships and romances emerge and falter, in ways perfectly imaginable among these short-changed teens. Kids “learn to move on” from the nasty circumstances of their deaths, or not, by revisiting a day (of their choice) in their life and attending their own funeral. Also threaded through are unusual powers for the dead–e.g., to be seen or heard by the living–that some of the teens possess. Sarah’s is introduced early on in the story, and her difficult history with a kind of prescience (shared, in her lifetime, with her mother) serves as a foil for consideration of how we live with the gifts and burdens we are given.
Sheehan pokes a little fun at just about everything traditionally associated with eternity. The figure of a prime mover in the afterlife, e.g., is called BOY, an acronym for “Boss of You.” (The dead teenagers’ guide, a woman named Bertha, describes BOY as “a gathering of the collective wisdom of humankind.”) When we eventually meet it, it is remarkably childish, impulsive, and cruelly arbitrary in its power. Similarly, the rules for when and how the dead can visit and return from visits to the living are strict and yet they’re broken repeatedly, and subject to the teenagers’ manipulations. It’s not only an adolescent’s likely notion of most systems of authority, but a perfect set-up for drama and suspense.
In spite of its humor and entire lack of any kind of preachiness, this is not a cynical book. Allowance is made for both hauntings and angels. Revenge is generally frowned upon, although most people get what’s coming to them. Life on earth is sometimes amazing and sometimes…well, sometimes humans fall short. For example, on a visit back to her home base of Washington Square Park, Sarah muses, “Was it this wondrous when I was alive? How could I have missed it?” and yet a little earlier Nick comforts Lacey, shaken by the absence of people she considered friends at her funeral, with the comment, “Maybe sucking is the best they can do.” “Moving on” to what’s next is actually an exercise, for each of these kids, in self-assessment and self-acceptance that most living people, old and young, should consider.
It would be easy and enjoyable for a parent to read this book, and I’d recommend buying two if it’s purchased for a YA reader in the household. Not for a daily book club kind of drill, but for casual and spontaneous discussion of what it means to live when it’s inevitable we will die.