Saturday, 14 February 2015

We Are All Made of Molecules, by Susin Nielsen

We Are All Made of Molecules is an excellent feel-good book. I read it very quickly because the story was so compelling and the characters so full of life.

Stewart and Ashley are not related, but they’re about to become brother and sister: Stewart’s dad is moving in with Ashley’s mum. Stewart’s always wanted a sister; Ashley has most definitely never wanted a brother. Stewart is extremely smart but not great at making friends; Ashley is more interested in maintaining her position at the top of the social ladder than schoolwork. Stewart’s mum died a while back and he misses her like crazy; Ashley’s father moved out after announcing he is gay and she can’t believe he spent all her life lying to her. This new family that’s being created is going to be interesting. Very interesting.

We Are All Made of Molecules reminded me at times of both Lara Williamson’s wonderful A Boy Called Hope and Holly Goldberg Sloan’s insightful Counting by 7s – but with it’s own special je ne se quoi of course. The characters are lovely, and grow brilliantly through the story – Stewart has so much to offer with his intelligence and his little insights into the world, while the changes Ashley goes through are equally as affirming.

Each chapter alternates between Stewart’s and Ashley’s viewpoints and Susin Nielsen has created two very distinct voices for each of them. Stewart is sweet and innocent, and so good-hearted. He’s decided to leave his old, exclusive school ‘Little Genius Academy’ and join Ashley’s high school. He’s not exactly clueless about the social mores, and it’s not that he doesn’t care what other people think of him – he does – it’s more that his idea of what makes him appear cool is skewed compared to Ashley’s. Can he find a way to fit in and make friends?

Ashley is hilarious – she doesn’t mean to be, but when she gets her words mixed up it’s hard for everyone not to laugh: she can’t wait, for instance, to be 16 so she can get ‘unconstipated’ (emancipated). At the start of the story she comes across as brattish and spoilt, but she knows what’s what, really, I think; it’s just that she’s so entirely focused on maintaining her social standing that her morals and empathic ability have been cast by the wayside. The question is, if she lets go of her anger and her fears, can she find what she’s lost?

And what happens when gorgeous Jared, the new boy at school, is added to the mix? Is he sent from heaven or is he just a school bully? He’s going to tangle things up even more, that’s for sure, and adds that extra, explosive quality to the story…

This is a tricky book to classify though: it’s sort of grown-up middle grade / young teen – very approachable for older middle grade readers, but some of the things that take place are more teen orientated. Jared, for instance, exerts a certain level of sexual pressure on Ashley that some parents might feel inappropriate for younger readers. Kim Slater’s Smart straddles a similar sort of boundary, and I think there’s an argument that we need more of them – readers, after all, can’t really be classified either. Personally, I would highly recommend We Are Made of Molecules to everyone and anyone aged maybe 11 to 100! It really hit the mark - or, as Stewart would say: it's quality.

Now I need to go and get two t-shirts made: one with the book's title and one that says,
"Always be yourself. Unless you can be a unicorn. Then always be a unicorn."
Think I'm a little odd? Well, you'll just have to read the book then…

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