Title: Croak I Author: Gina Damico I Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Children's Book Group
Young Adult literature is defined by the American Library Association as fiction that would be appropriate for children between the ages of 12 to 18. A branch of the American Library Association known as the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) offers the following synopsis for Croak:
Who could have thought that being a grim reaper could give you a life?
Actual Plot Summary: Sixteen year old Lexington (Lex) Bartleby lives in Queens, NY with her parents and her twin sister Concord (Cordy) in an otherwise happy home except for the fact that Lex is feeling angry and is expressing that anger through extreme acts of violence. She doesn't know why she feels the way she does, but the truth is that she has been viciously assaulting her fellow students with no provocation. With one week left before summer vacation, her parents are once again left begging the school's principal not to expel their daughter. In return for this favor, they promise that they have a plan for helping Lex reign in her acts of terror.
The plan is to send Lex to visit her Uncle Mort in Upstate NY to work on his farm in a small town called Croak for the summer. Lex begrudgingly agrees to go and when she gets there, she immediately learns that Uncle Mort has lied to her parents about being a farmer. Uncle Mort isn't a crop reaper but a grim reaper. What's more, Uncle Mort asked to have Lex visit him because she exhibits all the signs of being a Grim as well.
As Lex trains in becoming a Grim, she proves that she is very gifted as a "Killer" – Killer is a term they use for describing a person who is responsible for removing a soul from a body once the body has died. Grims work in pairs as Killers and Cullers. The Cullers capture souls once they are removed from their bodies and return them to Croak where the souls then join the afterlife. Lex's partner is Driggs. Driggs also lives at Uncle Mort's house. Driggs and Lex are immediately attracted to one another and eventually become romantic and sexually involved partners with the approval of all the adults in their lives.
As Lex progresses in her trade, she and Driggs discover that there are some anomalies in the way people are dying. They figure out that people are being killed by a rogue Grim who is acting as a vigilante against people who have gotten away with heinous crimes. That killer wants to recruit Lex who's gifted with the unusual ability to damn souls. The killer draws Lex out by killing Lex's sister Cordy. In the end, Lex rejects the killer's proposals, the killer escapes and the book ends with Lex's father (who still doesn't fully understand Lex's situation) asking Lex to go and "kill the son of a –"
This young adult book has earned a Mature Content rating for extreme language, graphic violence, aberrant behaviors, extreme anti-social behaviors and socially inappropriate humor. It also contains subtle sexual content and mild suspense. It receives two and a half stars for story development.
Review : Let's start with the foundational problem present in Gina Damico's Croak, and that problem manifests as the absolutely unapologetic savagery…both realized and latent… found within its pages. Opening sentence:
"Lex wondered for a fleeting moment what her principal's head might look like if it were stabbed atop of a giant wooden spear."
That kind of sums it up. Lex's in the principal's office with her parents because she has once again violently assaulted one of her classmates – this time for calling her a wannabe vampire. The author makes is abundantly clear that her character is almost always random and unprovoked in her frequent attacks, and that the violence is increasingly brutal as the months roll by. The opening pages paint an image of an unrepentant and vicious sociopath who could not care less about the injury she inflicts on other students or the emotional distress she is causing her parents.
As the adults in the room bargain as to how the sociopath might be allowed to stay in school and not be expelled, Lex fishes a hair (that was ripped from the head of the boy she bit) from her mouth, reveling in the pain she caused him quite literally without any awareness that there is a discussion about her future going on around her.
This is so base. It's so revolting that the author could a) even conceive of such puke and b) present it to children with a coldly, cynically detached humor that is laced with profanity as Lex revels in the pain she causes others. I could not help but to wonder where the sociopathy begins and where it ends. Does the psychological disorder rest solely with the fictional character as if the author played no part in Lex's formation? Is the author just an innocent victim that has no choice in the direction that her writing takes her? She must follow where the muse pulls her?
Does the author bear no accountability in paying homage to such personality traits because why? She has to maintain her artistic integrity rather than bow to the responsibility of protecting children from soul raping imagery? As if artistic integrity plays anything like a part in this era of mass produced YA brain candy in the first place?
The author is idly amused by the fictional texture produced through her character's savagery in the same way that you might expect the writers of the television show Criminal Minds to revel in serial murder. It's the exact same envelope pushing savagery only this is for children. Ironically, the big difference between Criminal Minds and Croak is that Criminal Minds doesn't show outward admiration for the criminal behaviors that it markets. The show, at very least, pays lip service to moral outrage against the violence it actually celebrates. The author of Croak offers no false piety and goes directly for the young reader's jugular. It rewards psychotic and sadistic barbarity by telling children that Lex is a supernatural being who improves in temperament and beauty once she's found her true calling…soul reaping.
Lex is sought out for her brutal tendencies to become a most excellent grim reaper and when you ponder the fact that YA literature is considered appropriate for children 12 to 18, what the author is really doing is weaving a fairytale justification for children who might be wrestling with their own emotional disorders. "Hey, you feel like brutalizing some cheerleaders? You have an overwhelming urge to punch "that kid in the wheelchair"? No problem. It's probably because you're special. Supernaturally evolved. Cinderella, Barbie and Miss America are unrealistic and unachievable models for behavior, so feel free to reach for this little fantasy. It's a highly achievable goal. Be a psychopath and your skin will clear, your hair will defrizz and you'll get laid by a really hot grim reaper. Awesome.
As we have come to expect in YA literature, although Lex's parents are loving and normal, all other examples of parental authority are violent and perverse. Character Elyssa tells her story of how she ended up in Croak. She was a school cheerleader who hooked up with the captain of the football team. She got pregnant, told her parents, and got kicked out of the house:
"I mean, I guess they [the parents] were always kind of conservative, but I loved my parents and thought that…well, apparently it wasn't mutual."
Alyssa has a miscarriage and is then recruited by Uncle Mort into the world of soul reaping.
Additionally, the background story leading the murder of Lex's twin sister Cordy is ridiculous and contrived. It is utterly gratuitous and serves no other purpose than to lend excuse to the escalating violence that Croak's sequels promise to deliver.
And that brings us to a discussion of the modern evolution of the book series with regard to the YA genre. It's important to understand that nearly every YA author now writes in trilogies and serial collections as a way of maximizing their yield for the time it takes to generate plot and character development. One should never forget that book writing is less of an artistic pursuit now and more of a big business. To that point, there are two kinds of series of which you should be made aware. We touched a little on this topic with the book review of Rush Revere and the First Patriots.
Rush Revere is the first and more traditional kind of series…as I mentioned before, the concept of Rush Revere is formulaic and that's not a bad thing. Book one in the series or book one hundred in the series, it doesn't matter. The author will present his characters with a question or mystery that can be solved by jumping through time and experiencing for themselves how historic figures dealt with the problems of their day. Parents can rest assured that the author isn't going to push their children into manufactured moral dilemmas that must be solved in ways that differ from the consciences of the reader's parents. He respects traditional values, respects parental authority and therefore respects the children for which he writes.
Most seriates will not be formulaic in nature. Rather, the drama, the moral dilemmas, the justifications for bad behavior will escalate. Book one will act as the gateway drug to get children hooked. And like all good pushers are wont to do, be it illegal drugs or pornography, it's only after the addiction has been established that the harder drugs will be introduced. YA authors will present "book one" with some very murkily applied logic along with traditional soap opera techniques that will immerse children in moral relativism that makes the average responsible adult reader go, "Hmmmm." The story will then leave the child hanging with unanswered quandaries that will require the purchase of the next book to resolve. The relativism will deteriorate with each new installment in the series until you find your child eventually reading the equivalent of literary heroin.
In spite of Croak's place on YALSA's "Best of 2013" list, this is not a book that I would recommend for children between the ages of 12 to 18. And again, it's only book one. I haven't read book two or three in Gina Damico's Croak series. I only surmise by applying my understanding of modern YA literature that the series will not improve with the next new installment.
Two and a half stars because there are so many unfinished ideas scattered throughout the book that I had to double check that the author didn't self-publish her story.