Chalk it up to another of life’s great mysteries: YA author Mariko Tamaki’s career consists of thinking about, writing for, and talking with teenagers—but she didn’t love being one.
“I hated being a teenager. It was like I was being a teenager wrong and everybody else seemed to have some handbook,” Tamaki says. “Every time I tried to do something cool, it was really not cool. It was almost like the harder I tried, the worse it was.
“But the flip side of that,” she continues, “is when you’re spending so much time trying to figure out what everybody else is doing, it kicks your brain into hyperdrive—which is sort of the writer’s muscle, right?—why is this the way it is?”
Her latest novel, Saving Montgomery Sole, is the story of a high school girl in Aunty, California, who doesn’t fit in: Montgomery—“Monty,” for short—has two moms, an athletic younger sister, and an abiding love of frozen yogurt and inexplicable things.
“Basically, for as long as I’ve lived in Aunty, I’ve always been, like, this inexplicable thing, a mystery object that’s not like anyone else at this school,” Tamaki writes. “I guess it’s possible that that’s part of why I’m so obsessed with other inexplicable things. With other unsolved mysteries.”
With her two best friends, Thomas and Naoki, Monty runs Mystery Club, an extracurricular activity aiming “to examine unexplained phenomena, curiosities, and other subjects the members consider to be interesting,” Tamaki writes. Mystery Club is one bright spot in school days that otherwise consist of defending herself against multiple nemeses.
Nemeses include, but may not be limited to: the popular clique, shallow girls in grandstands, a creepy ex-crush, and the new kid, Kenneth White, son of a right-wing Christian fundamentalist preacher whose intolerant sermons often target families like hers.
“Montgomery Sole was my attempt to write somebody who does not keep things in the inside,” Tamaki says. “I’ve written a lot of introverted characters in the past, who kept a lot of their conflict on the inside, and I wanted to write somebody who was the talker-backer type person.
“But I realized as I was writing, even the character who is the most verbose about the things that annoy or anger her is keeping a lot of stuff unspoken,” she says. “Because there are things she’s afraid to talk about, too.”
When Monty purchases a crystal amulet called the Eye of Know (online retail: $5.99) for Mystery Club, its strange properties appear to include sinister power over her foes. Whether this is a good thing and whether the energy exists at all are just a couple of the mysteries she must grapple with.
“For me it was important, especially for Saving Montgomery Sole, to show a character in a slightly better place, but a lot of the things that are true [about Monty] are probably still true at the end,” Tamaki says. “Having your character make a connection or face up to something is the most that you can give them.”
Megan Labrise writes “Field Notes” and features for Kirkus Reviews.