Fat Vampire by Adam Rex, 326pp, RL: TEEN
FAT VAMPIRE is now in PAPERBACK!
PART 1: In Which I, the Reviewer, Discuss My Fondness for the Works of Adam Rex, What I Really Think About the Twilight Saga, the Nature of the Teen Novel; Romance, Profanity, Sex, Drugs and Their Place in Literature for Teens; and the Fact That This is My First Ever Review of a TEEN Book.
Before I begin discussing Fat Vampire, I need to say that I am an unabashed, enthusiastic fan of all forms of the work of Adam Rex. The picture books he illustrates, whether he writes them himself or others do, are magnificent. Psst! will remain one of my favorites for its subversion of the typical "kid at the zoo" story, as well as the laughs that the hippo in the bat cave elicited from my son when we read it out loud. Rex's first young adult book, The True Meaning of Smekday is also in my (yet to be actually written down anywhere) list of TOP TEN YA BOOKS - EVER. While revisiting my review of this book from 6/09, I was impressed all over again with the sharp societal observations woven throughout a consistently humorous and thoughtful story about a girl and an alien and the invasion of earth.
So yeah, I LOVED Fat Vampire. I have occasionally dipped my toes into the waters of TEEN books a few times over the last five or so years, a dip that coincided nicely with my oldest child becoming a teenager and wanting to read books of this nature and also with a noticeable bump in the number of well written, interesting books being published for teens. Despite my minimal current experience with teen books and the fact that I am predisposed to adore anything Adam Rex does, I do feel like I can write a clearheaded, pertinent review of this book. I was a fervent reader of Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles when I was a teenager and I have read some of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight Saga (for professional and personal reasons - I had to know what all the hoopla was about and make sure it was ok for my daughter to read. It was NOT OK, actually, but once that barn door was open...) Why was it not ok? The totally addictive and mind warping unrealistic portrayal of love and romance is why! Just when I thought we had dodged the "Disney Princess/Prince Charming" bullet, Stephenie Meyer comes along to throw another wrench into my attempts to raise a strong, individualistic daughter who DOES NOT think she needs a boy/man/prince charming/chuckling vampire (really - Edward CHUCKLES!!! Who else besides Santa Claus chuckles???) to complete her and make her life worth living! I think that this, combined with my astute critical mind and bookseller's instincts, mean that I can, and will, write a well thought out, useful review of Fat Vampire. Also, this is my FIRST EVER review of a TEEN book on my blog and I want it to kick ass.
There, I did it. I used swears, in print. That is what you can expect from a teen book these days, although not necessarily from all of my future teen book reviews, despite the fact that I am a great fan of salty language and always enjoy learning new swears, of which there are a few sprinkled throughout Fat Vampire. And they are sprinkled judiciously and in just the right spots. Although I rarely watch TV, especially network shows that air at 8:00 pm anymore, I am aware that there are some words that now get past the censors with ease that are pretty blue. Because of the pervasiveness of swears in every day life, I think that teen books of a certain genre must utilize them if they want to have any ring of reality. However, they can use them sparingly and in places where the impact of their use affects or moves along the plot and this is exactly what Rex does. In light of this reasoning, I am not going to list any of the swears or their page numbers for parents. Read the book yourselves before putting it in the hands of your child or else read my review and accept that this is the world we live in, even if you don't want your children to participate in it first hand, if you have concerns about content.
Also, of course, all teen books must involve some kind of romantic relationship. I feel pretty qualified to make this huge, blanket statement because I shelve in the Teen section at the bookstore where I work and, as when I shelve anywhere in the bookstore (save the computers and knitting/needlepoint section) I read the blurbs on the backs of the books. Teen books, with the exception of a few really hardcore "boy" books (think Walter Dean Meyers, and I know even his books have a little romance once in a while) always involve some kind of romantic entanglement and this makes perfect sense - this is the new territory that teens are exploring and they want to know how it's done and how it isn't... If you doubt me, check out the discussion over at Literary Rambles: A Forum for all things children's literature, which is hosted by writer and all around knowledgeable person when it comes to the industry, Casey McCormick. When she asked, "Love interest a Must in YA?" the response (from adults who are both writers and readers) was a resounding YES. And Fat Vampire has romance. And tension. And bad romance. And in satisfying doses. And in age appropriate situations and descriptions. I'll be honest, I don't monitor what my teenager reads. I think I have a good enough sense of what is on the shelves that she is currently reading from that I don't have to pre-read what she reads. But, I still don't want her reading about people doing things that I wouldn't want her to do at her age, or ever. I don't want her reading about teenagers doing drugs or having sex, even if it turns out badly for them. But, I am sure that she has come across this somewhere or other in her reading of popular teen fiction and I just hope the plots and descriptions were mild enough in their presentation to fly under her radar. This is not actually a digression, by my long winded way of letting you know that, when reading and reviewing a teen book, I will be choosing to read works by authors who include blue language, sexual situations and possibly even drug use or references to drug use. Once again: this is the world that we live in and, while I don't think it's the best possible world, I also don't think that it is realistic to shield teens from it. Better to teach them about the beast and how to fight it than hide them from it.
PART 2: In Which I Review Fat Vampire: A Never Coming of Age Story, by Adam Rex.
Doug Lee is a vampire who was turned at the age of 15, before he lost his puppy fat and awkwardness. The opening chapters of this book begin at the San Diego Comic-Con International, a four day meeting of comic book lovers held every summer. Over the decades, Comic-con has exploded into a cultural event encompassing toys, collectibles, movies and video games. Although I have not been - yet - I do live in San Diego (county) and work with many regular attendees, I can tell you that it is insane. The costumes of the attendees and the celebrity guests alone make it worth standing in front of the convention hall entrance for a few hours just to people watch. Doug and his best friend Jay, whom I kind of imagined as a cross between Ricky Gervais' side-kick, the hilarious Stephen Merchant and eternally-awkward-but-charming-teen star, Michael Cera, are having a tough time in San Diego. Doug needs to feed. His hunger is making him extremely sensitive to sunlight, necessitating the constant wearing of a white, hooded plastic poncho. When the two strike out at a party they crash and then are unable to find a field of cows, Doug's usual source of fuel (let it be said, he drinks from but does not kill the cows) the two end up at the world famous San Diego Zoo, which I have been a regular visitor at since I was a toddler, making this scene in the book even more hilarious. While perusing the animals and trying to make a choice, Doug is forced into admitting that he was hoping for "something a little more . . . sexy" than a Bornean bearded pig. When pressed by Jay, he goes on to confess that the "perfect animal . . . would be, like, a real pretty doe." Jay counters with, "Or a unicorn?"
Doug ends up in the Giant Panda enclosure where he is horrified by the unrecognizable lump that is a baby panda. If you are a San Diegan, this is a huge thing, borderline sacrilege, in fact. Which is why it is especially funny, as is the poke Rex takes at the names of the pandas. But, as the book progresses, the humor of Doug's situation gradually morphs into something more profound and dangerous. The book returns to Pennsylvania and introduces a new character, Sejal, an exchange student from Kolkatta who is spending the year abroad, we learn as her story slowly unfolds, because she has "the Google" and it caused her to commit some horrible acts of cruelness by way of her vlog - video blog. As she says, "it makes you forget what's important. I lost track of myself for a while. I forgot who I was. You can do terrible things when you don't know who you are, na?" As Sejal struggles to be a better person, a good person, and think the best of others, Doug is slowly consumed by his vampire nature, which is not kind or thoughtful, as he is introduced to his peers and educated by an older, eccentric vampire named Mr David. Woven throughout the stories of Doug and Sejal is the character of Alan Friendly and his cable network show Vampire Hunters which, as one character notes, usually ends up nabbing some "Eurotrash" rather than a real vampire. After the debacle at the zoo, Alan is on to Doug and it only takes a matter of months to track him down for a climactic, layered end to the story.
As I said when referring to Rex's young adult novel, The True Meaning of Smekday, there are many points along the path of Doug's life as a vampire that are ripe with metaphor and social commentary, and in doses that will not set off any "preachy adult warning" alarms. I feel like I have already written past the point which anyone will continue reading what I have to say about Fat Vampire (especially when you could just read the book yourselves) but I actually made the point of marking passages that I found thoughtful and/or thought provoking and I'm going to tell you about them! At one point in the story when Doug is discussing with his mentor, Stephin David, the possibility that a vampire can be released from her/his curse by killing the vampire who made him Doug asks, "But I mean . . . why would a vampire create a younger vampire if there was a possibility the young one might end up destroying the old one?" To this, Stephin replies, "If you can explain to me how this is different from parenting in general I might know how to answer that." I love this response, and it is even better when you know the complexities of the character of Stephin. At another point in the book Doug, who has two different people suggest that he wasn't a nice guy because of the insulting kind of humor he used with is friends and enemies, thinks, "Humor made the world a better place. Clever insults were the basis of all humor. No, he realized, with a sudden clarity. Not insults. Control. Control was the basis of all humor. Even at its most innocent, what was a joke or a clever comment if not a way to take control? No wonder the popular, good looking kids were so seldom funny. They didn't have to be. Why else would people find it so hilarious so see some short kid's textbook stolen, held high above his head, out of reach? It wasn't funny - it was pure control. Insult comedy minus the comedy."
I love this thought path, for which I left out a few stepping stones. It seems that so much of being a teenager is about being someone, being a type, fitting in. And, concurrently or eventually, one hopes, thinking about that person and place and how you think about and treat others around you. At least, the four teen novels I have read back to back in preparation for writing this review had themes along those lines. I don't remember much of high school. I'll be honest, I blocked most of it out. But I talked with my husband, who has taught high school for the last fifteen years and also read Fat Vampire, and asked if there really are still popular kids, cruelty and the like. Do short kids still really get their books stolen? Yes, he said. High school is a petri dish where this sort of behavior, this sort of hierarchy, is both intensified and condoned. But why? Is this just the training ground for adulthood or an anomaly of adolescence? Both, I think. The hierarchy is not as immediate and obvious in adult life, but the cruelty and thoughtlessness are there nonetheless. Whether it is in friendships, families or the workplace, I think that some people carry on with this attitude throughout their lives sometimes. I know I have had more than one customer threaten to have me fired, and I have to say, on the whole we have the nicest retail customers anywhere at the bookstore where I work and I am a pretty darn helpful and usually kind bookseller, but still, this sense of superiority, entitlement or need to control others stays with people.
I know a lot of adults have reverted to or added teen books to their reading lists in the last few years, and not all of the teen novels being read have supernatural aspects. Maybe there is something in these books that we all need to revisit, rethink, in some ways, that is integral to adolescence. Probably, though, it is the angst and the romance (or lack of it) that is the sweet spot for most, and, after the whole popularity or lack of popularity theme (or even ahead of it) romance (or the lack of it) is king in the teen novel. Either way, for me, Fat Vampire is a revisit to a place in the past that I thought I would never want to even think of again. And this time, I get to think of it in a whole new and better way.
For an amusing interview with Adam Rex, visit Bookie Wookie. For an even more insightful and adult interview with Adam Rex in which he discusses writing Fat Vampire, check out Editorial Anonymous.
And, for the funniest book trailer I have seen yet, check out this infomercial featuring the talents of another star in the galaxy of kid's books, Mac Barnett doing a brilliant sleazy hawker impression.