review

PET – AKWAEKE EMEZI

PetPet by Akwaeke Emezi
My rating: 3/5 cats
One StarOne StarOne Star

All knowledge is good knowledge, Pet said.

I don’t know if that’s true, Jam thought back. It doesn’t feel true right now.

Truth doesn’t care if it feels true or not. It is true nonetheless.

in the world of books and publishing, some titles are marketed as YA with the expectation that they will have crossover appeal into the adult market, and some are intended to pull in strong-reading tweens looking to grow out of their middle grade options.

this one feels like it was written for the younger half of the YA audience.

because this is internet, i feel like i have to throw up a shield before i’m even attacked by clarifying what should be some very obvious things about that statement, like 1) this is an observation, not a criticism, because there need to be books for every age group and reading level and that excellent books exist across every genre and in every age category, and 2) i’m not saying this one doesn’t have appeal for adult readers, or even that i didn’t personally enjoy it, but overall, me-as-adult-reader felt that the message was a bit facile for a grown person/seasoned reader and would be considerably less-so to younger readers.

this is the first title from PRH’s Make Me a World imprint, and their own mission statement’s language suggests they are targeting a younger-than-teen audience:

MAKE ME A WORLD is an imprint dedicated to exploring the vast possibilities of contemporary childhood. We strive to imagine a universe in which no young person is invisible, in which no kid’s story is erased, in which no glass ceiling presses down on the dreams of a child. Then, we publish books for that world, where kids ask hard questions, and we struggle with them together, where dreams stretch from eons ago into the future, and we do our best to provide road maps to where these young folks want to be. We make books where the children of today can see themselves and each other.

you can read the rest of it here

it’s a great idea for an imprint, with today’s increased demand for diversity and representation and #ownvoices in reading materials; “creating a conversation between the kinds of people who live in more than one world, and inviting young readers to make their own,” because if we want to start making better people than the ones we have now, the younger they are exposed to a range of cultures and experiences, the better. the central character in Pet is a black trans girl with selective mutism, and the book also features a hunky librarian who uses a wheelchair and a polyamorous relationship with a nonbinary person, so it’s working the diversity angle for sure, but it’s doing it pretty quietly—these characters and relationships exist because they exist in this and all worlds, but the bare fact of their existence is not the story’s focus.

the focus is…monsters.

it’s set in a near-future utopian city called lucille, and all of our contemporary problems and divisive conflicts appear to have been fixed: firearms banned, nationalism and religion eradicated, crime=solved for, with major leaps and bounds in medical technology that allows trans kids like our protagonist jam to ease into their true selves with a minimum of physical or psychological distress, and—most importantly—the complete elimination of ‘monsters’ in the world; where ‘monsters’ is a stand-in for all kinds of evil, and ‘angels’ are those who fought—and won—the monster-ending revolution.

the process by which all of this happened is brisk and glossed-over:

It was the angels who took apart the prisons and the police; who held councils prosecuting the former officers who’d shot children and murdered people, sentencing them to restitution and rehabilitation…The angels took the laws and changed them, tore down the horrible statues of rich men who’d owned people and fought to keep owning people.

jam’s generation is the first to be monster-free, and while talking about monsters is generally discouraged in lucille, jam’s mother indulges her, emphasizing the moral relativism of lucille’s ‘angels’:

“It not easy to get rid of monsters,” she said. “The angels, they had to do things underhand, dark things.”…”You can’t sweet-talk a monster into anything else, when all it does want is monsterness. Good and innocent, they not the same thing; they don’t wear the same face.”

but of course, in a world without monsters, no one will recognize a monster when they see one, and there’s a danger in overprotection, in encouraging ignorance of the shapes monsters can take.

…when you think you’ve been without monsters for so long, sometimes you forget what they look like, what they sound like, no matter how much remembering your education urges you to do. It’s not the same when the monsters are gone. You’re only remembering shadows of them, stories that seem to be limited to the pages or screens you read them from. Flat and dull things. So, yes, people forget. But forgetting is dangerous.

Forgetting is how the monsters come back.

spoiler alert: there is a monster at the end of this book.

as far as basic plot, characterizations, and message, this is well-suited for a strong middle grade to YA audience. some of it will seem oversimplified to old-fogey readers like me, but there’s a lot of beautiful writing here, and with references to hannah arendt and gwendolyn brooks, it’s got some sophisticated bones running through it.

i may not have loved it, but i liked it enough to make a this-month promise to finally read my copy of Freshwater; emezi’s adult debut from last year. this is also the month i will get older and even more fogey-ish, so hooray for that, i guess.

read my book reviews on goodreads

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