Friday, January 25, 2008


I’m a reading fiend these days. (Okay, I am a reading find everyday). No sooner had I finished Taken by Edward Bloor, than I raced through Flight by Sherman Alexie. It’s not that surprising that I read the book so quickly, considering it’s less than 200 pages, and the narrator, a teenage boy, talks fast and bluntly. The voice reminded me of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian in some ways—another Indian teenager speaking in first person about his life—but this kid, known as “Zits” for the terrible acne he suffers, is much angrier, much less hopeful about his life, much bleaker in his outlook in general. And he has little reason not to be this way.

Zits has been bounced from one foster family to another, from one group home to another, and from one juvenile jail cell to another. He’s angry and he’s got a violent streak and the adults in his life have constantly let him down. He’s the perfect mark for a jailhouse friend who calls himself “Justice.” Justice feeds on the anger and the rage. Justice quickly becomes Zits’s best friend, takes him to the abandoned building where they squat for awhile, and trains Zits to shoot. When he can handle a weapon, Zits goes into a bank, armed with a paint gun and a real gun, and opens fire. But a security guard returns fire, hitting Zits in the back of the head. In the moment Zits falls to the floor, knowing he’s dead, he suddenly careens through space and time, “flying” without control or will into another person’s body. As time goes on, Zits winds up in series of other people’s bodies, experiencing their emotions, remembering their memories and living their lives. In the course of these travels, he learns much about violence, war, guilt and humanity.

This book was published for adults and the author has said that the reason Flight is adult rather than teen is due to the violence of the story and the fact that Zits ends up in adult bodies most of the time. I was curious to see whether or not I agreed with his assessment and I did not. (Yes, I dare to disagree with the author!) In the end, I see what Alexie was getting at, but honestly, given the breadth of subject matter, issues, and violence in teen novels, I don’t see any reason why this book couldn’t be considered teen. If anything, it’s on the border between the two age groups, just like teens themselves are on the border between childhood and adulthood. Yes, there is violence, but it isn’t gratuitous. Yes, Zits winds up in adult bodies. But he is always partially himself within those bodies, and the story is told in his voice, in language that feels very“teen.” So, this book may be technically “adult” but it has considerable teen appeal. Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) gives out Alex awards each year. This is a list of adult titles with big teen appeal. I was surprised that Flight didn’t make the cut. Then I realized that it wound up on YALSA’s Best Books for Teens list instead. See, even YALSA thinks it’s teen, Mr. Alexie.

But let’s not quibble about age designations. Let’s talk about what a good book this was. Though it's harder to love Zits than it is to love Junior (of The Absolutely True Diary), I did love Zits by the story’s end. Zits is compelling, and his story is compelling. Alexie has a way of making the reader keep turning the pages. I also really enjoyed the supernatural or mystical aspect of the story--who wouldn't be interested in the concept of riding shotgun in another person's consciousness--and I loved that Zits wound up in both Indian bodies and white bodies, as well as finding himself in historical eras that really tested his blossoming sense of morality. I kept wondering: Which body would Zits inhabit next? What would he learn from each “flight” into another human’s consciousness? Why was this happening to him? Was he in Purgatory? Hell? And would Zits ever have a chance to undo the damage he had done, to others and to his own life?

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