By Elly Murray
Rainbow Rowell is the New York Times Bestselling author of Eleanor & Park and Fangirl. Carry On is her third young adult book, published in 2015, and it marks the first book of a trilogy that she’s currently working on. Carry On is actually an expansion of a world that Rowell first presented in Fangirl back in 2013. She explains in the author’s note in Carry On that, “In Fangirl, Simon is the hero of a series of children’s adventure novels written by Gemma T. Leslie - and the subject of much fanfiction written by the main character, Cath. When I finished that book, I was able to let go of Cath and her boyfriend, Levi, and their world. I felt like I was finished with their story...But I couldn’t let go of Simon.”
Carry On follows a teenager named Simon Snow, who attends a magical school called Watford in the UK. He’s the Mage’s Heir, which means he has a ridiculous amount of power that he has no idea how to control, and along with his best friend, Penny, and his rival, Baz the vampire, he has to figure out a way to defeat the Insidious Humdrum. If any of this sounds a little bit familiar, it’s for a good reason; the world and characters of Carry On were inspired by the wizarding world of Harry Potter. However, instead of the whole seven books of adventures, Rowell starts Carry On at the beginning of everyone’s last year at Watford.
The first third of the book was a bit dull, because it was all set-up. Rowell had to introduce this entire world that she’d created that is very similar to the world in Harry Potter, but that has its own little niches. And while it was interesting to learn all about this new world, I wish she had taken a more gradual approach. It kind of read how a middle-school writer would start a story, by explaining everything the reader needed to know about the world, versus just letting them experience it themselves. Additionally, as a result of this, we don’t really get a sense of who the characters are, or get a chance to form attachments to them, until a bit later in the book. However, once the book finally got going, it was very interesting. If you’ve read Harry Potter, you’re sitting there the whole time making these little comparisons in your head. And you discover that apart from a few similarities, Rowell really took the time to make this tale much more than just a Harry Potter fanfiction. You can see how Rowell was inspired by J.K. Rowling’s world, but then she took that inspiration and created something completely different with it.
I felt that Simon was a very fleshed-out character. He is a “Chosen One” character, but he’s got his own personality rather than just being a mold to fit the stereotypes of that archetype. One of my favorite things about him is that he’s a fiend intent on devouring every piece of food he comes across. In fact, one of my favorite lines in the book is from Baz about Simon. Simon is questioning him about being a vampire and he asks, “Does it have to be fatal every time? The biting? Couldn’t you just drink some of a person’s blood, then walk away?’ and Bas responds, “I can’t believe you’re asking me this, Snow. You, who can’t walk away from half a sandwich” (p. 349). In addition to just being really cute and relatable, Simon’s food obsession also provides a deeper level of character development for him; as an orphan who has gone through the U.K.’s foster care system, he’s always overwhelmed by how much food there is available at Watford that he is allowed to eat. In fact, when he makes a list of things that he misses at Watford on page 12, the very first thing is ‘Sour Cherry Scones.’
I also really loved how a lot of the characters’ descriptions come from what other characters think or say about them. Examples of this would be “Baz is...indelible. He’s a human grease stain. (Mostly human)” (p. 88) or “Baz was sure I’d singed off his eyebrows, but he looked fine to me-not a hair out of place. Typical” (p. 7) both of which are from Simon. Another one, from Penny about Simon, is very prominent: “Too thin. He looks too thin. And something worse...scraped” (p. 32) I really enjoy this method of characterization, as opposed to the more direct route of just describing a character because it feels much more natural and it’s sort of like a two-birds-one-stone scenario. At the same time as getting a description of Character A from Character B, we also get a sense of how Character B thinks, based on what they think about others. For example, in the quote above from Penny, we see that Simon is too skinny. But we also see that Penny is very caring and worried about her friend.
There’s also a very simple map in the front. I usually greatly appreciate a map, especially one that isn’t overly complicated. However, this map might have been too simple; half of the buildings at Watford weren’t labeled, so the reader has no idea what they are. I also would have perhaps liked to see visualizations for places outside of Watford where significant events took place, like Baz’s house.
Overall, I would recommend this book to anyone who likes tales of magic and romance. It’s witty, descriptive, and really just everything I could ask for in a YA fantasy novel. With a well-built world and fleshed-out characters, Carry On is perfect for anyone who loved Harry Potter, but felt themselves wanting more.
Want your own copy of Carry On? Get it from us here:
And while you’re at it, pick up a copy of the second book, Wayward Son: It explores something that isn’t often considered: what happens to the hero when their story is over and they’ve saved the day?
I hope you’re all staying safe at home! These are some crummy times, but you can always turn to a good book for comfort. So read on!
Jarrett Krosoczka is an illustrator and author who is most famous for his Lunch Lady & Jedi Academy series. His most recent book, Hey, Kiddo: How I Lost My Mother, Found My Father, and Dealt with Family Addiction, is a graphic memoir for young adults that comes out on October 9th. It was recently longlisted for the 2018 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. I was lucky enough to receive a galley copy when I went to the SIBA tradeshow last month. Krosoczka was unable to make it to speak at the event because of Hurricane Florence but he did record a very moving video about the book that we (booksellers) watched together. I left that lunch knowing that I was going to read the book before I even got back home.
Reader, I read it in one, very emotional, sitting.
In this book, Krosoczka tells the story of his family--starting with his grandparents, Joe & Shirley, who met and fell in love as teenagers. After his grandfather returned from WWII, during which the young Shirley had broken up with him, he came back to Worcester, MA to win back her heart. They got married shortly after and started having children. Jarrett’s mother, Leslie, was the second child in a family of five kids. The same year Leslie was born, Joe opened a factory that was fairly successful throughout his life, and spent most of his time working. Shirley, however, had experienced a personal tragedy that led her to start drinking heavily. This was the beginning of a tumultuous mother/daughter relationship between Shirl & Leslie.
When Leslie was 13, she began to act out. She started sneaking out, drinking, doing drugs, and getting into fights at school. Eventually, Leslie came home to say that she was pregnant. This did not help the volatile relationship she had with her mother but she did manage to stay clean while she was pregnant. After Jarrett was born, Joe bought Leslie a little home to make their own and they lived relatively happily there until Jarrett was a few years old. Leslie made a series of bad decisions and eventually went to jail. While there, Jarrett went to live with his grandparents and Joe set things up so that he, legally, had custody of him.
Ultimately, Jarrett was better off living with his grandparents than with Leslie. They were supportive of his art, encouraging him to make friends at school, and wanted to be involved in his life. However, they both drank heavily and fought constantly. It wasn’t the most stable upbringing, especially when you add in the infrequent visits and letters from his mother. After Leslie got out of jail, she spent time in halfway houses trying to get her life back on track. Jarrett always hoped, as a young kid, that he would be able to live with his mother again. It wasn’t even until he was in 3rd grade that he learned his mother was in jail and the knowledge haunted him. His hope to be reunited with his mother diminished as he aged until, eventually, he was a bitter, angry teenager.
During this time, he also began wondering about his father, who he’d never met and who’d never sought him out despite knowing that he had a child. As a teenager, he discovered his father’s last name and couldn’t shake the thoughts of him and what knowing his father would mean for his identity. So, when he got a letter from him one day, he was surprised but still not ready to get to know him yet.
Throughout middle and high school, Jarrett kept sketchbooks to draw in everywhere he went. He took art classes and began to get involved in the school newspaper as an illustrator for their comic section. Through art, he was able to explore the emotions he was feeling and express the pain he was feeling in a way that didn’t hurt him or anyone else. The drawings from this period of his life are quite dark and you can tell he was struggling with a lot.
There’s more to the story but I’ve gotten to the part where I feel like I’m going to give something integral away so I’ll stop my summary here. You’ll have to grab a copy to find out what happened to teenage Jarrett.
Reading this book was difficult but satisfying for me. Krosoczka writes with a openness and honesty about his troubled upbringing that I found both refreshing and reassuring. He also added a lot of special, personal touches to the book that made reading it especially moving. For example, each of the chapter title pages has the pattern of the wallpaper that was on the walls of the house he grew up in. He saved a roll of it to use in this book. He also added in actual art that he made as a child. All the artwork you see in the book that he says was drawn by him, was actually drawn by him when he was young and then superimposed into the book later. The letters from his mother are also real letters that she wrote to him. It was a very nice touch to this personal, painful memoir.
For my part, I didn’t grow up in a traditional nuclear family so seeing a representation of a loving family that maybe wasn’t quite like the families I saw in movies & tv shows was comforting. I also have experience dealing with family members struggling with addiction. Krosoczka’s memoir does an excellent job excavating the pain and anger that boil up in situations like this without feeling like he’s dramatizing for the sake of the story. Stories of addiction often have enough drama without needing any embellishment. Ultimately, the book felt real and raw and accessible in a way that I haven’t seen in a graphic memoir for a while. Comparatively though, it reminded me of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic.
Because this book was made for young adults (recommended ages 12-14), I feel that the topic is especially important. During a time when opioids are so widely available and so many people are addicted to them that the media calls it a crisis, there are many young adults who will find this book and be reassured by it’s honesty and it’s message.
I talk a lot about the importance of representation and there are lots of obvious ways that we can improve representation in literature. For example, it’s my priority to highlight books by marginalized authors or with marginalized characters both in my store and on our social media. However, I do think there are groups of marginalized people whose stories are often overlooked. The stories of those families fighting drug or alcohol addiction, and the children caught in the crossfire, are on that list. Often, addiction is a dark family secret. It’s not something you talk about outside of the family and certainly isn’t a story you share with the rest of the world, particularly in literature for young people. So, the importance of this work at this particular time in history is a bit elevated. We need these stories, not just for the sake of representation but also because the message we learn from Krosoczka is extremely valuable.
What is that message, then? The message is not particularly unique or surprising but it is one that I think we need to hear. Art saves. Art saves people. Art saves lives. Art saves families. Art saves angry kids from going to jail. Art saves. Art saved Jarrett from repeating the mistakes of his mother. Art saved Jarrett from the demons that plagued him. Art saved Jarrett from a life of doing something he didn’t love. Art saved Jarrett from the bitterness that threatened to eat him up as a teenager. Without art and a family who supported that art, we wouldn’t have the Jarrett Krosoczka we know and love today.
So, if you know a kid who’s struggling with their own demons or someone else’s, I highly recommend this book to them. If you know someone who is a parent and an addict, I also recommend this to them. It paints a vivid picture of the pain that a parent’s addiction caused one boy. If that message can help one person recognize the suffering they’re causing, then this book is more than worth the cost to purchase it. If the message that art saves can be imparted onto at least one young soul, then I think we’re on our way to making the world a better place.
You can pick up a copy of Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett Krosoczka at Foggy Pine Books on Tuesday, October 9th. You can also pre-order the ebook from us online and have it downloaded to your device that day.
Mary Ruthless: Owner & Ruthless Reader