by A.S. King
Published on October 23, 2012
By Little, Brown BYR
My summary: Astrid Jones lives in the small town of Unity Valley with her parents and younger sister. Her two closest friends, Kristina and Justin, are dating. She writes for the literary magazine and has an afterschool job. But Unity Valley isn't a place where everyone feels at home. Astrid's parents are miserable, and her friends feel forced to live a lie. Astrid also has a secret -- something she feels she can't share with anyone: she thinks she's in love with her co-worker, Dee.
My take: A. S. King's Printz honor award-winning book, Please Ignore Vera Dietz, is one of my favorite YA books of all time -- I reviewed it here. I've read three of King's books (all except Dust of 100 Dogs) and the three seem to share certain characteristics: a quirky/smart protagonist who's facing some kind of an emotional crisis; complicated family dynamics; and a touch of magical realism. I'll look at these aspects of Ask the Passengers one by one.
My favorite part of Ask the Passengers was definitely Astrid. Like Vera and Lucky, Astrid is anything but a conformist. She's an observer, one of those people who notices and thinks about everything. She also has a quiet and admirable strength of character. I think a lot of readers will relate to the fact that Astrid feels pressured -- for intimacy by her secret girlfriend, and by her peers and family to put a label on herself. Astrid stands strong in the face of this pressure, taking the time to figure things out in a way that feels right to her.
Complicated family dynamics
Parental figures in YA can often be absentee or one-dimensional, but not in this author's books. In Ask the Passengers, Astrid's mom is portrayed as a veritable Mommy Dearest. However, I'd argue that Astrid isn't an entirely reliable narrator on the topic of her family. She claims that her parents moved from Manhattan to Unity Valley because Astrid's mother couldn't bear to see a "For Sale" sign on her grandmother's house. Fine, except that Astrid also suggests that her mother hates Unity Valley with a passion. Astrid says that if her mom "doesn't leave the house, the gossips-in-charge won't have anything to say about her." Yet Astrid's mom also likes to dress up "fancy" and take Astrid's sister to the country club-- a place that, in my experience, is an epicenter of gossip.
This aspect of the book fascinated me. In Everybody Sees the Aunts, we're given an explanation for the crazy, passive-aggressive antics of another colorful parental figure -- pill-popping Aunt Jodi. In Ask The Passengers, Astrid really isn't interested in making excuses for her mother. It seems like her parents might be suffering either marital problems or money problems or both. But -- given the tension that can develop between teenage girls and their mothers -- it's equally possible that Astrid's relentlessly unflattering portrayal of her mother is largely a result of their strained relationship.
Astrid is clearly closer to her father, a guy who has coped with being downsized from multiple jobs by smoking pot and making birdhouses. One summer, Astrid and her father also made a picnic table together. Now Astrid likes to lie on the picnic table and watch airplanes overhead, sending love to the passengers inside them.
"I lie on it and look at the sky. I see shapes in the clouds by day and shooting stars by night. And I send love to the passengers inside the airplanes. It makes me happy ... it feels good to love a thing and not expect anything back."Magical Realism
Elements of magical realism are another trademark of this author's work. Ask the Passengers incorporates POV snippets from airline passengers who are going through various personal issues. In addition, Astrid, who is studying philosophy in her AP Humanities class, imagines that Socrates follows her around school. She's bothered by the idea that he only has one name, so she calls him Frank.
In the interest of full disclosure, I'm not crazy about magical realism. However, when A. S. King included the points-of-view of a) a pagoda and b) a dead kid in Please Ignore Vera Dietz, it really worked for me. In Everybody Sees the Ants, when Lucky -- who is being bullied -- imagines that he is heroically rescuing his POW grandfather from the jungles of Laos, I was completely on board. In both of those books, the magical realism aspects fit and enhanced both the themes of the story and the main characters' emotional turmoil. I'm not sure that I can say the same for Frank and the airplanes. To me, these elements never really felt like an integral part of the story.
That aside, I still wholeheartedly recommend Ask The Passengers. I think that A. S. King is one of the most talented and imaginative writers in young adult fiction, and Astrid is definitely one of my favorite new YA characters of 2012.