Author: A.S. King
Publication Date: 10/23/12
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Blurb (GR): Astrid Jones desperately wants to confide in someone, but her mother's pushiness and her father's lack of interest tell her they're the last people she can trust. Instead, Astrid spends hours lying on the backyard picnic table watching airplanes fly overhead. She doesn't know the passengers inside, but they're the only people who won't judge her when she asks them her most personal questions... like what it means that she's falling in love with a girl.
As her secret relationship becomes more intense and her friends demand answers, Astrid has nowhere left to turn. She can't share the truth with anyone except the people at thirty thousand feet, and they don't even know she's there. But little does Astrid know just how much even the tiniest connection will affect these strangers' lives--and her own--for the better.
In this truly original portrayal of a girl struggling to break free of society's definitions, Printz Honor author A.S. King asks readers to question everything--and offers hope to those who will never stop seeking real love.
If you've read as much YA as I have, I am sure this story will sound VERY familiar to you. I myself have read it once, twice or three times, in one form or another, and each version was of a different quality. I want to repeat the blurb and say that Ask the Passengers is a "truly original portrayal of a girl struggling to break free of society's definitions," but it just isn't.
Astrid's is a story that's been told before. A teen who lives in a small town full of close-minded people, possibly falls in love with a girl and questions her sexuality. She keeps her questions to herself for the time being, not sure of her own feelings and fearing reactions from her superficially accepting family and openly intolerant community. But one day Astrid's cover is blown and she is forced to face the fallout...
Although the book is an assemblage of popular tropes, especially the second part, abundant with acts of homophobia and fake gay-supportiveness, King's writing abilities and her unique touches of magical realism and quirk elevate this story from the been-there-done-that level. The novel shines because of its memorable, vivid characters and interesting family dynamics (you can't be bored by Astrid's high-strung NYC-nurtured mother and her laid-back, pot-smoking dad). The elements of magical realism brighten up the story as well. (If you are into that sort of thing; in my relationship with A.S. King's books, it's a hit or miss, sometimes the quirky and weird is too much for me to handle.) In Ask the Passengers imaginary Socrates follows Astrid through her troubles and infuses the book with old time philosophical musings, and Astrid's habit of sending her love to the passengers of flying-by planes adds another layer to the narrative, when these anonymous passengers return the favor by sharing their love and life stories with us, readers. These bits are refreshing and entertaining.
Besides the familiarity of the story I think my most acute concern is the one that Flannery talked about in her recent Something Like Normal review, easy and unearned forgiveness. There are many harsh things Astrid has to go through in this novel, thanks to people closest to her, things she doesn't deserve. But all is forgiven and forgotten in the end. This is not what a realistic resolution entails, at least not for cold-hearted me.
In her last three novels A.S. King has already undertaken the subjects well-used in YA - death and grief (Please Ignore Vera Dietz), bullying (Everybody Sees the Ants) and struggles of gay teens (Ask the Passengers). While I enjoy King's spin on all of these subjects (and she herself is a one cool lady and an author whose approach to her craft I respect immensely, based on this podcast), I wish she would stretch her wings of creativity and write about something... fresher.