Thursday, December 18, 2008

Morris Shortlist: Me, the Missing, and the Dead

Me, the Missing, and the Dead
Jenny Valentine
2008 (2007 copyright date); HarperTeen; 978-0-06-085068-5 (hardcover)

Summary: Lucas is an average sixteen-year-old in London, living with his mom and siblings, visiting his grandparents, and hanging out with his friend Ed. The not-average thing about him? His father disappeared five years ago. Ever since then, Lucas has refused to let his father go--even wearing his dad's old clothes. But now, something even more not-average has happened: Lucas rescues an urn of ashes, left behind in a taxi. And the ashes inside? They have something to tell Lucas.

My Humble Thoughts on Why This Book Was Shortlisted for the Morris Award

#1: An intriguing story that reveals how coincidences aren't always coincidences.

This novel starts with a commonplace mystery--what happened to Lucas's dad? Then it adds in the mystery of the urn and why the urn was left in a taxi. It's no surprise, really, that these two mysteries connect. But the joining of these two stories, and the eventual solution, isn't about the mysteries themselves. No mystery is ever about facts like who the killer is or what really happened. It's about the process of learning those facts. Valentine constructs a believable sequence of events as Lucas navigates his way to the truth about not just the missing and the dead, but about himself.

#2: True-to-life characters that we all know.

Unlike other teen novels, there are no quirky, larger-than-life characters in this book. The actions of average people can be just as enthralling as the unusual or the eccentric, however. Violet Park and Pete Swain are dynamic and exciting people--and they are the dead and the missing of the title. As such, while they make a momentary impact, they are still ciphers to us. Like a stone falling into a pond, these characters shake people up, yet the reader is left knowing more about the pond. The subtle shifts in Lucas's moods, the peaks and valleys of his relationships, are fully detailed throughout the novel. There's also Lucas's disappointed mom, his senile grandfather and his live-wire grandmother. Common characters, yes, but all executed well by an observant writer.

#3: That little something extra.

Valentine reveals a gift for language that's not flowery or over the top. Consider these sentences from early in the book:
"It was dark in the alley, blue-black with a sheen of orange from the street lamps on the high street, almost dawn and sort of timeless. My shoes made such a ringing noise on the cobbles, I started to imagine I was back in time, in some Victorian red-light district." (page 3)
There's no odd metaphors or really strange juxtapositions: just descriptive prose that captures a character's feelings and creates a mood.
"It wasn't just paper in the boxes from the attic. It was clothes and records and cuff links and jewelry and brushes and sunglasses and a guitar and a ashtray I'd made out of clay when I was about seven.
I looked at it and I thought, It's all that's left of him.

Then I thought of him in some other place, with new records and clothes and photos and kids who made ashtrays; and I thought that he was still the same poor excuse for a man, however much shopping he'd done, the bastard."
(page 138)

Me, the Missing, and the Dead on the surface would appear to be a standard teen novel: a step up from the more fluffy titles available to teens and with a broad appeal. Yet due to the quality of the writing, this debut shows that you can write economically and truthfully for teens without becoming melodramatic or false. It indicates a restraint and a talent in Jenny Valentine that I hope will continue to be developed.

1 comment:

Kelly said...

I just finished this one and really enjoyed it, so thanks for sharing your thoughts on why it works so well. It's always helpful to try to articulate why I liked (or didn't like) something!