Book Review: Everybody Sees the Ants by A.S. King

Ants Cover

A few months ago, I wrote a post for the It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? meme, and I seemed a little grumpy. I guess I was in a funk over what I perceived as general bad quality in the YA books I had been reading or perhaps just my inability to choose the right ones.

Shortly after I wrote that post, I got a message from my friend Donalyn Miller, who asked me, “Have you read Everybody Sees the Ants?”  I hadn’t. But I knew that I would. For just as Donalyn is good at matching students with books, she’s also good at matching adults with books. Or, more specifically, this adult.

So, I checked out the book from our public library and read it fairly quickly.

Here are some reasons I would recommend this book to other readers:

The parallel between being bullied and being a prisoner of war.

I have to confess that I usually shy away from books that deal with kids being bullied.  It’s tough for me to read about this subject because I end up feeling frustrated and helpless just like the victim. I like what King has done with this very real problem, however. While I still experienced a bit of the frustration and helplessness, I also felt the triumph when Lucky grows beyond his oppression.  King powerfully connects Lucky’s experience as a victim of bullying with his grandfather’s experience as a POW in Vietnam.  Lucky’s grandfather disappeared in the jungles of Vietnam, and his grandmother and father have never been the same.

The dream sequences between Lucky and his grandfather.

I haven’t read any other YA novels that incorporate magical realism, but that’s the best term to describe these scenes.  When Lucky is in a particularly stressful situation, he dreams of long conversations with his grandfather in the Vietnam jungle, and he wakes up clutching actual objects from those dreams.  I could see some teens (usually more literally-minded) struggling with this aspect of the book, but it would open some interesting conversations about writers’ choices and literary techniques.

The depiction of how the losses of war affect an entire family for multiple generations.

Lucky promises his grandmother on her deathbed that he will continue searching for his grandfather, a missing POW who has been gone not only all of Lucky’s life but also all of Lucky’s father’s life.  I appreciated the sensitivity with which King has created a relationship between Lucky and a man he never knew, and I appreciated Lucky’s dad’s very real struggle with never having known his own father.  The entire family has been living with the shadow of not just a death, but of the lack of knowledge of the fate of this relative.

My own grandmother is 93 years old, and the shadow of her younger brother, who was killed at 19 in World War II, has never really dissipated.  Not that it has caused overt trauma in our lives, but it is a reality that we live with. I myself am acutely aware of this death, even though he was killed decades before my birth.

The realistic and humanized portrayals of adults.

So many times in YA novels, the adults are nonexistent, useless, or even evil.  There is a trend to portray the teenage world as a bubble in which only teens are the major players, although there might be the occasional older sage advisor who swoops in with words of wisdom in a tough spot.  Perhaps this world is true for some teenagers, but it never quite rings true for me.

Adults were some of the most formative influences in my teenage life, so I’ve always found this aspect of YA novels strange. The adults in this novel, however, were fully formed, neither full of omniscient wisdom nor cartoonish in corruption and villainy.  Lucky’s parents and aunt and uncle all have their own fully developed roles with believable reasons for their character flaws.  They are all struggling in their own ways, and Lucky’s growing knowledge of this is part of his coming of age.  This growing realization that adults are human beings with their own lives is a valuable stage in the journey of adolescence but one that I believe is too often neglected by writers of books for teens.

The realization that people in our lives will disappoint us, but we can still learn from our time with them.

Maybe they aren’t what we need, but we are what they need. Maybe we need to break contact because of their actions, but everything we’ve experienced because of that person is still a deep part of who we are.

This was the first of A.S. King‘s books that I have had the pleasure of reading. I will definitely be checking out her other work.

 

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2 responses to “Book Review: Everybody Sees the Ants by A.S. King

  1. I’m glad you appreciated the book, Jennifer. Now, have you read We Were Liars? How about Grasshopper Jungle?

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