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The Eric Carle Museum
of Picture Book Art
  • 125 West Bay Road
  • Amherst, MA 01002

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Picture Books We Love

Shop Talks: Pet – Be Brave Enough to Look

This is Hannah and Allie from the Carle Bookshop, back for another Shop Talk about our favorite books in the Shop.

In this week’s Shop Talk, we met over Zoom to discuss Pet (Make Me a World/Random House 2019) the debut YA novel from writer and visual artist Akwaeke Emezi. We talked for more than an hour over Zoom about our reactions to the book— about questions we were left with, characterization, and the role of Jam’s parents over the course of the novel. We talked about a lot more, but we want you to eventually finish reading our thoughts and read the book for yourself! 

 Two selfies from Hannah and Allie, both are standing outdoors and holding up their copies of Pet by Akwaeke Emezi.

Pet is Emezi’s debut YA novel and it’s already beloved. Among its many awards and honors, Pet has won a Stonewall Honor, a Walter Honor, and was named a 2019 Best Book of the Year by School Library Journal. It was a finalist for the 2019 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and a Lambda Literary Award, and an Indie Next selection. In the story, a Black transgender teenager named Jam and her best friend Redemption live in the town of Lucille. Lucille exists in a world, or a possible future, where the Monsters of the world, the evildoers, have supposedly been totally eradicated by Angels, benevolent heroes. There are no Monsters anymore, or so the children of Lucille are taught. Jam has questions about the past, and when she meets Pet, a horned and clawed creature who emerges from one of her mother’s paintings, she has to question everything she’s been taught. 

Pet is a book that asks us big questions: What makes a Monster, and can you tell who the bad people are just by looking at them? Is it better to remember the dark parts of history, or leave them in the past? How do you save the world from monsters if no one will admit they exist? The reader goes with Jam, Pet, and Redemption on their quest for the truth. Jam is a character who will not be easily forgotten, as she uses her courage, strength, love, and brilliance to fight for what’s right and protect the ones she loves. 

 The novel Pet by Akwaeke Emezi is held above a grassy patch of sidewalk.

Allie: I’ll kick off this, our second Shop Talk, by saying I don’t know if I’m totally ready to discuss this book because even a week after reading it, I’m still turning the story over and over in my mind. And, I don’t think there’s anything I can say for this book that it doesn’t already say for itself.  

Hannah: This book blew me away, I finished reading a few days ago and I can’t stop thinking about it. I have a lot of questions about the book too, which I wrote down. Firstly, do you think the main character Jam is selectively mute or some part deaf? Book reviews call her selectively mute, but I wondered what your reaction was. 

A: I think that Jam is selectively mute because as a reader who is neurodivergent, I interpreted her unique abilities in the book as strengths she has because she’s on the spectrum. It’s never specifically named as that, but that’s what I felt personally. Jam sees and understands the world in a very physical way, she can feel other people’s intentions and emotions by feeling their energy in the air and the floor. Her heightened sensitivity to the world and everything in it was something I connected strongly to.  

H: That was one of the things for me that I kept going back and forth on. I did eventually see a review that identified her as selectively mute, but it was a question for me while reading because I was thinking maybe she's part of the Deaf community, possibly she has a cochlear implant, because she spent so much time talking and thinking about the vibrations of the house. She spent so much time with her other senses than just hearing. I can also see why you interpreted her as being on the spectrum – it’s another one of those instances where the author doesn’t specify one way or another.  

A: Emezi doesn’t specify, but if a reader does interpret Jam’s abilities that way, there isn’t anything in the story to make us think those abilities are bad. They give Jam the ability to anticipate other people’s feelings so she can prepare herself and prepare a plan of action, or be a better friend, daughter, or community member for those closest to her. It reminded me of the Percy Jackson series with Percy’s ADHD and so many other Camp Half-Blood students’ varied identities and learning disabilities. It’s their neurodivergences that gives them the power to fight faster, interpret other languages, and become heroes. 

H: I love Rick Riordan. So, whether it is selectively mute or partially deaf – Jam’s ability to use her other sense is a superpower that she uses for the good of herself and the people around her. Those abilities are so clearly positive, and strong, that I feel any reader who is not neurodivergent or who is physically able would understand these abilities are something that's really cool, and in no way limit her actions. It can resonate for both people who are part of Deaf culture, or who are selectively mute, and also for readers who are neurotypical - because either way it's a superpower!  

A: Yes! Totally a superpower, and one she uses so responsibly. Which I think is one reason why Pet truly respects Jam so much. 

 The novel Pet by Akwaeke Emezi sits open in a garden of flowers and green brush to show its summary on the dust jacket.

H: What do you make of the names of the characters in this book? They were obviously very symbolic, and of what I was not really sure.  

A: Character names were a definite part of the worldbuilding for me. I read so many books with the same names over and over, meaning books by white authors. The names in Pet—Jam, Redemption, Bitter, Glass, Malachite— they made me slow down and imagine what these people looked like, what their parents were like, what their name could mean about them that I may never find out in the text of the story. And when I came to the point where I worried I’d lose track of all of the characters, I remembered that Whisper is Whisper because he’s always moving around the room, light and airy. And so on with characters like Beloved, and Aloe. 

H: Emezi is always bringing your attention to very specific physical details as well to characterize people and make the world more real. The casualness with the way they address various physical attributes or the way that people interact with each other. And the first time we go to Redemption’s house with Jam and we have the quick dialogue between characters, it all felt so real. Like, that's how my family interacts, or that's how my friend’s family interacts! It felt good to see the things I love about our world still exist in a world that is supposedly so far beyond what ours is. Supposedly beyond racial violence, beyond those and other kinds of Monsters.  

A: Speaking of families, I love Jam’s parents, Aloe and Bitter. They’re fully formed humans with lives outside of their lives as parents, which I feel I learned later than Jam did. Perhaps because her superpowers make her more intuitive. In so many kid lit stories, the parents have to disappear in some way—going on a trip, dying, or totally absent—for the child character to be able to have an adventure. Like the Darling family having adventures in Neverland where Peter Pan and the Lost Boys have total freedom. But Jam’s parents are totally supportive of her life and her choices, and do their best to listen to her thoughts and needs. And Jam knows that if she makes a mistake, or needs help, that her parents will be there and do their best to help her, because they have a relationship where they share and listen as much as they can. They’re three individuals who recognize each other’s needs, and they all love each other unconditionally.  

H: I like that as well. Emezi does a really good job of creating this dichotomy between parents and children in that the parents and the grownups are the ones that aren't telling you things that you want to know, but at the same time presents them as real people with faults and fears who used to go on adventures themselves.   

A: It's made very clear that the adults in the story are acting from their own experiences, for better or worse, not from a desire to control the main characters. 

H: Yes and I think that's a central theme of the entire book; how you react to fear, how you overcome fear, what fear makes you do. And that leads to the final question I had when I finished reading: what makes a topic for unsafe for children, when is it acceptable to learn about monsters, and who makes that decision and why?  

A: Oh, that’s one of my favorite questions of the book! And one of my favorite quotes from the librarian in the story, Ube, when he’s talking to Jam and Redemption about their curiosity about the past: “Ain’t no grown-up in the whole of Lucille grown enough to tell you you don’t deserve answers to your questions.” (Emezi, 130) 

H: Oh my Gosh, favorite character! Favorite character! 

A: Rather than old fairy tales where the adults have to die for the children to go off on their own, Jam and Redemption are told they belong to themselves, and they have a right to their own curiosity. And a right to answers, which they find at the library, where history is being preserved for future generations whether Lucille likes it or not. 

H: I felt was very poignant and could very well be responding directly to that tradition of children not being able to go on their own adventures if they’re impeded by an authority figure. And without getting rid of the authority figures, just making them more relatable and trusting. Emezi did an exceptionally good job of allowing their main character Jam to question and subvert any authority that tried to make decisions for her.  

A: I just- I have to read this book again. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read.

The novel Pet by Akwaeke Emezi lays on top of a pile of grey garden bricks surrounded by green grass and weeds.

 

by Eliza Brown

This entry was posted on Wednesday, August 12th, 2020 at 9:00 am and is filed under ShopTalks. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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