Monday, January 20, 2014
The Living by Matt de la Peña
The Living, besides being all these BIG things, is also the story of Shy. Shy is spending his summer working on a cruise ship off the coast of California and, along the way, learning quick and valuable lessons about the differences on the ship between the help and the passengers. In the background of Shy’s universe, there’s a mysterious virus sweeping through the United States and making people sicken and die quickly. Cleverly, de la Peña sets this virus up as impacting Shy’s life directly; so it doesn’t just scream “I’LL BE IMPORTANT LATER!” from the narrative. Many elements of The Living are like this: woven together with just enough detail to build the mystery and raise the stakes. This is the attention to craft and avoidance of obviousness that really makes The Living outstanding.
Not long into the cruise, the fabled “Big One” strikes California, devastating California and sending a tsunami straight for the ship. It’s at this point the action in The Living ratchets up to a delightfully unbearable level and the pages just start flying. This is when The Living becomes a can’t-put-down book made for reluctant readers.
This, for readers who may be unfamiliar with his work, is a hallmark of de la Peña’s writing: well-crafted work that also has naturalistic dialogue and fast-paced plotting. It’s literary merit for reluctant readers. Never is this more obvious than in The Living where the full richness of Shy’s character mixes with, yes, sharks circling a raft in the open ocean as you, the reader, hold your breath, admire the writing, and will the tension to never end.
The Living is a book that throws out “you can’t do that” when it comes to genre and, moreover, when it comes to young adult literature itself. Can’t make your adventure story be directly correlated to a story about class in contemporary society? Sure you can, this book does. Can’t have a main character of color be brave, strong, and bold in an action-thriller? Sure you can, this book does. The Living is all about what you CAN do in YA lit if, like de la Peña, you’re willing to not only take risks but work to craft a story that makes you care about and invest in characters pushed into extreme situations.
The Living is highly recommended as a first purchase. Due to de la Peña’s fearlessness in mixing genres and a featured protagonist of color, it has wide reader appeal. It’s fun to booktalk too, so I highly suggest librarians taking it along for school visits.
The Living is the first in a series, with the second volume, The Forgotten, due for release this year. It will, of course, pick up all the action, conspiracies, and, yeah, love stories. De la Peña promises to take us to the wrecked state of California in this volume and I can’t wait for Shy to hit the ground running there.