I already knew A.S. King was a really, really good writer. Please Ignore Vera Dietz was the best young adult book that I read in 2011, and I'm so glad that I started 2012 with Everybody Sees the Ants.
What I began to understand about A.S. King while sitting in the audience of her Printz speech in New Orleans, and what was cemented as I read Vera Dietz, is that there is a frankness about her. That she is "frank" might not sound like a compliment, but I mean it as a big one. She speaks frankly and she writes frankly, and she is not afraid to talk about pain or to write about it.
(Part of the reason I loved Everybody Sees the Ants immediately is because it recalled for me Tiger Eyes, my favorite Judy Blume book and one of my all-time favorite books and a book I probably read at least a hundred times as a young girl. In that book, as you probably know, a teenage girl and her family move to New Mexico to stay with an aunt and uncle after a trauma, and it's a whole new world where the girl is both able to escape her life and find herself again, in a way, and it's perfect. In Ants, a mother brings her son to Arizona after a trauma to stay with an aunt and uncle, and I could write a whole essay here comparing and contrasting these two books, but I won't. I just wanted to point out that I liked that they had this in common.)
This is the story of a boy named Lucky who is treated quite badly by his fellow boys. After one particularly heinous incident at the neighborhood pool, his mom up and relocates them to Arizona to stay with her brother and his wife. Lucky's mom is addicted to swimming, his dad is addicted to the Food Network, and his aunt is addicted to pills, and Lucky escapes it all every night in his dreams. He escapes in his dreams to the jungles of Vietnam, where he spends time with his grandfather, who has been missing in action since the war and whose absence has left a big hole in their lives.
It would seem that this is all in Lucky's mind, right? Or is it? Somehow it doesn't matter, because this is A.S. King, and we go along with it, and we believe. These dreams are presented as rescue missions where Lucky tries to save his grandfather and bring him home. In this jungle are frogs and booby traps and leeches and ants. The lines start to blur for Lucky between being asleep and awake, and whether he's awake or he's dreaming, he sees the ants.
When his uncle stands up for him when his mom and aunt give him a hard time, Lucky looks at his uncle and notes, "The ants form a rotating halo above his head. They sing that high-pitched note that angels sing."
In an A.S. King book, it just makes sense that Lucky sees the ants. She is able to spin these stories with this sort of unique, well, frankness, and this matter-of-factness, even about things which are quite extraordinary and seemingly impossible, in such a way where the reader believes them to be totally possible. We just accept the story she tells because we love the characters she creates and we believe that the rights and the wrongs that they face are real.
There is so much more to this story than I can touch on here. This book made me feel brave. It is not a book about magic, but it made me believe in magic anyway. You will just have to read it yourself to see what I mean.