Book: The Young World
Author: Chris Weitz
Age Range: 14 and up
The Young World by Chris Weitz is a post-apocalyptic survival story, this one featuring a mysterious illness that kills everyone except teens (they continue to catch it as they reach age 18 or so). The Young World ought to have felt like "been there - done that" to me. But it didn't, for some reason. Well, because of a combination of strong characterization, well-delineated settings, and intense action, I think. With bonus points for the inclusion of diverse characters, and for tackling race relations head on. I quite enjoyed it, and look forward to the sequel (the book ends with a cliffhanger).
The Young World is set in New York City. Rival groups of teens have formed armed encampments. There's a considerable amount of rivalry, political maneuvering, and violence. In this, The Young World reminded me a bit of Charlie Higson's Enemy series, though without the zombie adults, and with considerably more three-dimensional characters.
The story is told in alternating chapters by Jefferson and Donna, two kids who were friends before the Sickness came, and who seem destined to be more than friends in the aftermath. If they can survive that long, that is. Jefferson and Donna are very different from one another, and keeping track of their separate first-person voices is not a problem. (The publisher also helped in the digital version that I read by using different font sizes for the two narrators.) Jefferson is a half Japanese / half white younger son of an "oldie" father. He is introspective and hopeful, a self-declared "nerd philosopher king", genuinely trying to find a better way for the survivors. Donna is a "trigger-happy feminist sniper", and calls herself "the pixie-ish, wacky best friend". She's all tough talk, but she secretly cries while watching iPhone videos of her deceased baby brother.
Jefferson and Donna live in a kind of commune in a protected Washington Square Park. However, they soon set out on a quest to help find a journal article that their resident evil genius (and apparently person with Asperger's), Brainbox, thinks may hold a key to understanding the Sickness. Jeff, Donna, and Brainbox are joined by Peter, a gay, Christian, African American boy who is a bit of a wise-ass, and SeeThrough, a tiny Chinese girl who excels at Martial Arts, but doesn't talk much. They make friends and enemies in the course of their journey, and even have to fight a bear.
Here are a couple of quotes, to show you the difference between Jeff and Donna's voices:
"Taped to the pedestal, mementos of the dead. Snaps of moms, dads, little brothers and sisters, lost pets. What Mom used to call "real pictures," to distinguish them from digital files. Hard copies are where it's at now that millions and millions of memories are lost in the cloud. An ocean of ones and zeroes signifying nothing." (Jefferson, in his first chapter)
"Not enough hands or time to get rid of all the bodies, though. And they're still out there, millions of them, slowly turning to mulch, pulsing with maggots. It's been a banner year for carrion eaters. Hope I didn't spoil your appetite." (Donna, her first chapter)
In looking through my clippings, I find that I highlighted a ton of passages, mostly from Donna. She has a real flair for getting to the heart of things. Like this:
"But books--books are handy. You can keep ideas on paper for, like, centuries. And if you want to find stuff out, it's right there. You don't have to grab it out of the air, call it up from some data center in, like, New Jersey. So books had the last laugh. Nobody is going to know what the hell me and Jeff and the crew did five years from now. Unless Jefferson writes it down in one of his fancy notebooks or there's space aliens who can read things from people's bones or something. But Huck Finn is gonna be chillin' on the Mississippi forever." (Donna)
I love that last bit. The Young World is an adventure story that I could see reading again, even after I know how things turn out, just to enjoy hanging with the characters. On the first read, I did read pretty quickly, curious to know how things were going to turn out. There is plenty of suspense.
I also quite like the attention that Weitz pays to the details of New York. One of my favorite scenes is when Donna finds Pooh and friends in the New York Public Library. I don't know New York all that well, but there are plenty of other details that enhance the sense of place, without being too insider-y. Like details about the exhibits in the Met.
One has to get past the contrived nature of the premise of The Young World, of course, but that's true of all post-apocalyptic stories, particularly ones that strive to leave the teens in charge. However, I found other aspects of Weitz's world-building are refreshingly realistic. The kids scrounge up generators and solar panels, so that they still have some access to gadgetry. They run around clutching their iPhones even if there's no cell service, and they can occasionally listen to music or watch movies, too. It's not all "technology is now dead" as in many stories.
The characters also maintain certain aspects of their pre-existing social structures. The rich, white kids band together, call themselves the Uptowners, and have a fully separate society from the kids from Harlem. The Harlem kids are strong fighters, and some of them believe that they are actually better off than they were before the apocalypse. The kids from the alternative school end up in Washington Square Park, and remain cool with alternative lifestyles. I found it all fascinating.
Bottom line: even though this post-apocalyptic scenario of killer virus leaving only teens might seem on the face of it a bit tired, Weitz's execution made The Young World totally work for me. I can't wait for the next book, and I highly recommend The Young World to fans of near-term post-apocalyptic teen fiction. It's a bit violent, though, and has some cursing and sexual references, so I would call it a high school, rather than middle school, read.
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (@LBKids)
Publication Date: July 29, 2014
Source of Book: Advance digital review copy from the publisher
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