Six foot tall insects are infesting a small town Iowa, and it may just be the end of the world. But that’s not even the most interesting part.
Austin Szerba always tells the truth, even when he’s trying to figure it out for himself. He loves his girlfriend Shann. And he may just be in love with his best friend Robby too. He’s a horny, confused jumble of frustrated impulses, that’s enough to worry about even before the giant bugs. But the apocalypse waits for no teen.
It’s up to the three of them to try to save the world, and figure themselves out in the process.
My result: Recommended
You could love Grasshopper Jungle for any of three reasons:
Few books capture the chaos and confusion of puberty with such honesty and compassion. Grasshopper Jungle includes a straight female, a gay male, and a narrator who’s still figuring himself out. The story is at least as much about the relationships between the three of them as it is about the apocalypse. Their interactions drive the story, and the desire to find out how things turn out kept me turning the pages compulsively.
This is not the kind of apocalypse you’re used to. There’s no chilling look at the direction our society is heading, or bleak depiction of life after. The apocalypse starts in a skateboard alley behind a secondhand store with glow-in-the-dark mold, and only gets stranger from there. It’s more like the wild ride of Metamorphosis or Cat’s Cradle than the deadly serious dystopias you might be used to.
Austin is crass and hysterically funny. If you can handle the crudity of the language, he’s a joy to read. Here’s a taste from the opening page:
I read somewhere that human beings are genetically predisposed to record history.
We believe it will prevent us from doing stupid things in the future.
But even though we dutifully archived elaborate records of everything we’ve ever done, we also managed to keep on doing dumber and dumber shit.
This is my history.
There are things in here: babies with two heads, insects as big as refrigerators, God, the devil, limbless warriors, rocket ships, sex, diving bells, theft, wars, monsters, internal combustion engines, love, cigarettes, joy, bomb shelters, pizza, and cruelty.
Just like it’s always been.
Grasshopper Jungle is a fast read, with short chapters and snowballing disasters. (I devoured it in 24 hours.) But it’s a ride you won’t forget quickly. Austin is a character who gets in your head, and Robby and Shann are done just as well. I rooted for these characters all the way.
As an adult reader, I’m expect anything with a romance plot to end in a happily ever after, and that made me very frustrated with the ending of Grasshopper Jungle. But in a young adult novel, it’s honesty that matters most. Love is messy and confusing. Choices aren’t easy, and they have consequences. And with that in mind, yes, it’s a book I’d recommend. It’s perfect in its honest portrayal of teens just trying to figure things out. It’s never preachy. It doesn’t end the way I’d like it to, and there are a few interactions that bother me, but it’s real.
In the end, I did still round down because the two male characters were given much more fair treatment in the story line than the female character. Shann is a flat character, without much depth or motivation, and serves mainly as the other side of the equation in Austin’s dilemma. I still ended up rating Grasshopper Jungle high because of the exploration of sexuality and engaging character voice, but the mistreatment of Shann as a character bothers me greatly.
Like many teenage boys, Austin thinks about sex. A lot. There is also a lot of violence and some language, as well as mentions of other adult issues. With its honest explorations of the issues (and consequences) they may be facing in real life, Grasshopper Jungle is appropriate for older teens. But some readers (or parents) may feel uncomfortable with the frank discussion of sexuality. Concerned readers may want to check Common Sense Media’s review for a detailed, spoiler-filled breakdown of all content issues.
Book Awards Printz Honor 2015
If you like Grasshopper Jungle, you might also enjoy:
- Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe – Centers on the profound friendship between two teenage boys and the subtle exploration of sexuality. More subtlety than Grasshopper Jungle, and less cursing. Not scifi or fantasy.
- Cat’s Cradle – The over-the-top apocalypse paired with a dynamic, bold character voice reminded me of nothing so strongly as Cat’s Cradle. With smart, surreal humor and short chapters, you’ll devour the classic quickly too.
- Glory O-Brien’s History of the Future – A completely honest teen voice, this time female, caught in the beginnings of an apocalypse. In Glory’s case, it’s a future only she can see. Like Austin, Glory’s blunt honesty may offend some, but is guaranteed to make you think.