I’m always on the lookout for teen novels that will lure more adult readers into the YA section. I have a soft spot for Australian fiction. I’m currently reading for the Cybils. And I’m still in October Mode.
On a hot summer night, there’s a tap at Charlie Bucktin’s window. It’s Jasper Jones, the town’s teenage outcast. If there’s a crime committed, he’s the prime suspect; if there’s an ugly rumor, he’s the target; the younger residents of Corrigan find him both fascinating and frightening. Tonight, he needs Charlie’s help.
When Jasper Jones stops and grabs my shoulder, I jolt like he’s shot volts through my body. I point the bridge of my glasses further up my nose and wait. Jasper pushes through a bush and ushers me through. We’re moving off the path. I hesitate.
“Where are we going? What do you need me for?”
“S’not far now, Charlie. You’ll find out.”
When they get to the hidden glade, Jasper reveals his gruesome discovery—and despite his reservations, Charlie helps him hide it. Once they’ve done so, there’s no turning back for either of them. The secret needs to be kept until they’re able to discover the truth behind the mystery. Otherwise, the town—as always—will hold Jasper responsible for the crime.
Despite the knuckle-whitener of an opening sequence and despite the title, Jasper Jones isn’t really about a murder, and it isn’t even really about Jasper himself: Jasper Jones is about 13-year-old Charlie Bucktin beginning to become a man. When we first meet him, he’s innocent, awkward and fumbling, aware of it and desperate to appear otherwise:
“It’s the…asthma and that. All the…humidity. Yeah. Usually I’m…” I squint down my nose at the cigarette in my hand, as though it has just said something to confuse me. I needlessly tap ash from its hood, singe the tip of my index finger, and drop the cigarette. Of course, my instinct is to reach out and catch it, which, to my surprise, I manage to succeed in doing, and so I burn the inside of my left palm. I hate this cigarette. And now I have to smoke it.
As the summer winds on, Charlie’s understanding of the world is challenged in almost every way. He starts to see his parents and their marriage differently—his relationship with them changes, as does his opinion of them as people. He begins to see that adults do just as many petty, mean and horrible things as his peers, and even worse, that adults aren’t always fair or trustworthy. His friendship with the affable, determined, hilarious and inspiring Jeffrey Lu never changes, but his secret involvement with Jasper Jones and his first romance—with a girl who has very close ties to Charlie and Jasper’s secret—vie for his attention.
Although the mystery itself is one of darkness and tragedy, and although the book deals with racism, death and multiple forms of abuse, Jasper Jones isn’t a depressing read. Charlie and Jeffrey’s constant banter lightens it up considerably, and there are shining moments in which people Stand Up And Do The Right Thing. With echoes of To Kill a Mockingbird and Stand by Me, Jasper Jones is a must-read for anyone looking for a beautifully written piece of historical fiction, for a mystery that spins out slowly, or for a coming-of-age story that recognizes that becoming an adult is something that happens over the course of a long period of time, not in a single moment.
If she isn't writing Bookshelves of Doom or doing her librarian thing, Leila Roy is probably maniacally organizing all of her music into far-too-specific Spotify playlists.