Review written by Jonathan Lavallee.
This highly acclaimed and award winning YA novel might grab the interest of your tween, but Jonathan offers some insight into why you’ll want to make an informed decision about letting your young reader put this on their “to read” pile, and why it should end up on your “to read” pile first.
Grasshopper Jungle can be defined by the location of the same name in the book. It’s the back alley behind the only somewhat functional strip mall in Ealing, Iowa. This book is dark, twisted, funny, jaw dropping, and all sorts of things in between and if you’re going to let your tween read it I would suggest reading it first because this is the kind of book that will leave you with questions, let alone your tween.
The story comes at us from the perspective of Austin who has a rapid fire, sexually charged, and somewhat disjointed view of the world, a very sex focused view of the world which is interesting when the story centers itself around Austin’s confusion about his sexuality. His best friend is Robby, his girlfriend is Shann, and Austin has feelings for both of them. It all starts when a bunch of kids from the public school (Robby and Austin go to the Lutheran school) attack the two boys and throw their stuff on the ceiling. This leads them to climb up on the roof to get it, and down into the second hand store where they witness the same boys break in and steal this weird orb that ends up causing the end of the world.
That was a bad idea.
The end of the world, caused the giant Unstoppable Soldiers that look like six foot tall praying mantises, is really the backdrop of the story. The whole crux of what happens is based around Austin’s confusion about himself, his sexuality, and how he can relate to his friends. Robby knows that he’s gay, and has come out to Austin and Shann. Shann is very straight, and when Austin explains that he and Robby kissed Shann has a very heteronormative response, and sends nasty texts to Austin for the first little bit of time after finding out.
That was a bad idea.
Because the end of the book leads to them hiding in a bunker that was built for the purpose of surviving the Unstoppable Soldiers rampaging through the world and killing anyone. The Unstoppable Soldiers are only interested in feeding and reproducing, and they continue to do that long after the book ends.
The style of the story is rather quick and snippy. The sections that are written aren’t very long, and they tend to go back and forth through time and space. You’ll get a little bit of what’s going on in a moment, which will make Austin think of his brother who got blown up by an IED in Afghanistan. It will then jump to a story about someone else who lives in the area and what they’re doing. It repeatedly jumps between Austin’s perspective and another character’s, never leaving the reader behind, but never staying in one spot for too long. It isn’t too jarring, and you and your tween can quickly get into the flow of it.
That said, unless you’re a parent who is really comfortable with your tween and sex, you’ll want to avoid this book. There is a lot of sexual conversation, and thoughts, and expressions, and moments, and references to balls, and making out, and porn, and so on. Austin really can only think about not sex for a few words before it comes back into the discussion. Which makes the one sex scene in the book incredibly odd for how unsexy it is. It talks about Austin and Shann having sex in the most mechanical and dispassionate way, almost scientific in its exactness. But there’s an intention to how everything is handled in the book that shows a consideration for what the character is going through.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
This book is about the sexual confusion of the main character, and the book never lets you forget it. Austin is always talking about sex. When he’s with Robby, he’s thinking about his feelings for Robby and how they kissed on the roof of the strip mall. Austin is thinking about sex when he’s talking with Shann. He’s thinking of threesomes when they’re all together in the room. It’s a non-stop barrage of thoughts of sex.
Austin isn’t the only one. Robby loves Austin, and does his best to not let it show but it does leak out from time to time. Shann has a moment where she talks about her thinking about having sex with Austin. She writes how she’s interested, and pleased that Austin talked about condoms and sex but after that her perspective is really glossed over. If there’s exploration of sexuality in the book, it’s really focused on the male perspective. It isn’t balanced at all.
There’s a lot of sex talk in regards to the six foot tall, praying mantis-looking, Unstoppable Soldiers. It’s referenced frequently that all they want to do, in the words of the book, are eat and fuck. Again, the reproductive cycle of the insects is described in the most antiseptic of terms, but it’s everywhere and it’s impossible to avoid.
Lots of talking about masturbation too, and all guys talking about masturbation and how various things from video games and porn turn them on. It’s very limited in that regard, it’s very much dealing with sexuality from a confused 15 year old boy’s perspective and that’s kind of it. I know that I didn’t really relate to it and I have actually been a 15 year old boy.
Drugs and Alcohol
The boys smoke, and sharing a cigarette is often very intimate for Austin and Robby. Whenever they smoke alone, Austin also talks about how odd and taboo that is for them. There’s a moment when they get drunk together at Robby’s house on cheap wine they found on the roof of the strip mall.
There’s a lot of discussion of drugs. One of the people in the apartment complex that Robby lives in does Crystal Meth. He gets eaten by one of the Unstoppable Soldiers who then becomes high on what he ate. There’s discussion of Robby and Austin’s mothers both taking Xanax, referenced as the little blue kayaks, and Austin ends up taking one of the pills while drinking with Robby.
There’s a little bit of discussion about religion, but not much. The boys go to a Lutheran school, and there’s a discussion about a saint and how you can’t like saints and be a Lutheran.
Lots of people die; it is the end of the world after all, and most of the ways that they die is that they’re eaten by the Unstoppable Soldiers. A few of the Unstoppable Soldiers eat each other, and some are dissolved by Robby’s blood which they discover is one of the few things that will kill Unstoppable soldiers.
None of the families in the story really have anything redeeming about them. Austin’s parents are just there; they exist on the periphery of his life. The one person he cares about, his brother Eric, is away on military tour and Austin’s parents go to Germany to annoy Eric.
Robby’s dad abandoned his family after he went on a trip to South America. He fell in love, and just abandoned his family and then doesn’t think of his son for almost a decade. Robby and his mother had to move out of their house and into an unsafe apartment complex. They love each other, but they spend a lot of time trying to avoid one another.
This is a book you’re only going to want to recommend for your older tweens, and you are going to want to read it first. You are going to want to read this book before even bringing it up to your tween. The blurbs on this book talk about how this is about a young person dealing with their confused sexuality during the end of the world. This is true, but what it doesn’t tell you is that this confusion is all there is to this book. Unlike other books that discussed similar topics like Fat Vampire: A Never Coming of Age Story or The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, this book doesn’t have much going for it besides that topic. The writing is fun—it reminds me a lot of Daniel Pinkwater but with way more swearing and talking about sex. It’s fun and quirky but you’re going to want to read this one before you bring it up. There’s a good chance that it’s not something you’re going to recommend to your tween, and really only your older tweens, and even then only if you’re comfortable with the material.
Otherwise, that’s going to be a bad idea.
Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith
Published in 2014 by Dutton Books for Young Readers
Read the e-Book
A 2015 Michael L. Printz Honor Book
Winner of the 2014 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Fiction