BBR: Maggot Moon, by Sally Gardner

Can’t read, can’t write, Standish Treadwell isn’t bright.

A few prefatory notes before I get into the meat of this review:

1. Mike Printz was the librarian at my high school. In my sophomore year, I did an independent study with him, where I basically served as his link to young adult opinions–he was a member of the Young Adult Library Services Association’s Best Books for Young Adults committee, and he wanted someone in the target age group to read and review books with him. We worked together again after my junior and senior years, and were good friends throughout. I’m given to understand that my opinions broke a few ties, which is cool; mostly I just miss my friend.

2. I lovelovelove a good dystopia, which is a weird thing to say. It’s true, though: I love seeing how authors believe the current trends will play out, love seeing how authors believe the people will eventually rise up against the Powers That Be, love rooting for our heroes and anti-heroes as they do what it takes to bring down The Man. And I get a particular kick out of hearing from folks who say “this is unrealistic; people would never submit to blatant abuse of power like that”, then looking at them and saying “TSA”.

3. I particularly enjoy it when our heroes are young. I know we’re in a bit of a surge of interest in YA dystopias right now (thanks, Hunger Games), and I reckon it’ll fall apart sooner or later, but in the meantime I’m enjoying the knowledge that lots of kids are getting to grow up reading all about fighting the power. Insert fist-pump here.

4. My degree is in English, but my minor was Linguistics. Language–and its use and misuse, twists and turns and acrobatics–fascinates me.

So with all that said, perhaps it will make some sense that I wait excitedly every year for the announcement of that year’s Michael L. Printz Award winners for Excellence in Young Adult Literature–and that when one of this year’s winners was described as being a dystopian novel written from the first-person perspective of a person with dyslexia, who is entirely illiterate but picks up a great deal of information by listening to the people around him even if he sometimes misunderstands the words that are being used…well, I think it took me all of two days to pick up a copy of Sally Gardner’s Maggot Moon, and that was just because I felt obligated to wait for payday.

Not gonna lie, I've been tempted more than once to pick up a roll of the Printz Award stickers so when I get a book that won but doesn't have the seal on it, I can just slap one on myself.

Not gonna lie, I’ve been tempted more than once to pick up a roll of the Printz Award stickers so when I get a book that won but doesn’t have the seal on it, I can just slap one on myself.

The premise is straightforward: we are living in a dystopia, where genetic purity has become an all-important factor and neighbors are rewarded for reporting each other. The Motherland is on the precipice of a major historic event, sending a rocket to the moon as a demonstration of Her superiority and might, and our hero, Standish Treadwell, is a teenager with what we’d see as a totally manageable learning disability but what in his society is akin to a mark of Cain. He can neither read nor write, is bullied relentlessly by teachers and by other students, lives in abject poverty, and has exactly one friend.

In other words, he does not have the brightest prospects for the future.

Now here’s the problem with reviewing this book: that is all I can tell you. Anything else I could possibly say will be a major spoiler, and I flatly refuse to do that because you all are very nice people. So instead I’m going to veer off a bit and get philosophical.

What I love about this book is the fact that of all possible characters, Standish is our protagonist and our narrator. His illiteracy shows in his misunderstanding of some words and phrases–for instance, “pigwigs” instead of “bigwigs”–but he is an acute and careful listener, with a great deal more cleverness below the surface than most adults in his world give him credit for. Sure, he doesn’t catch everything, and sometimes it takes him a few extra minutes to piece something together, but he’s got an ability to see below the surface, notice subtext and implication, and respond to what people are actually expecting instead of what they say. You can’t get much past Standish, and in a world of lies and propaganda and misdirection, that’s a mighty useful skill to have.

The thing that makes it extra cool to me, then, is that throughout the story, there’s this quiet but insistent message that other people’s perceptions of you don’t necessarily matter (though they can be manipulated, which is handy); what matters is how you use the skills and talents you have. People think you’re dumb? Fine. People think you’re “not bright”? Fine. People marginalize you because you don’t fit their convenient mold? Fine. You don’t have to fit in to be loved–Standish is loved, and deeply, by the people who have taken the time to get to know him–and you don’t have to be perfect or “pure” or cookie-cutter to be exactly the person the world needs. You don’t have to be rich. You don’t have to be cooperative.

Heck, you don’t even have to be fearless–you just have to be willing, in the telling moment, to take whatever gifts you have and run with them. What’s that line from that movie about just needing a few minutes of insane courage?

I reckon it’s easier when everyone assumes you’re crazy from the outset.

TL;DR: The Michael Printz award-winning books are almost always a safe bet for excellent reading material, and Maggot Moon, set in a dystopia and told from the perspective of a dyslexic outcast, is no exception. The protagonist’s linguistic quirks add an extra level of interest, and the story underscores the idea that anyone can be amazing–even the people who have been pushed to the fringe.

Rating: 9/10 Muddy Hoofprints. If you’re not big on dystopian YA fiction, this is absolutely not going to be your cup of tea. And the Big Critical Plot Point at the End (you’ll see) felt a little…well, if the author believes what she was writing about, then I imagine it’d be hard for us to have a conversation about it, because I don’t really agree with her (vague note is vague). But overall, this is a quick, easy, and utterly, utterly fantastic read.

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