For the past few months, I have had the pleasure of joining Ice Eaters, Oxford Public Library’s Young Adult book club. It’s a dynamic group of young people who really put my critical thinking skills to the test! This week we discussed Mosquitoland, David Arnold’s 2015 debut novel. Mim Malone is a sixteen year old girl whose family life is troubled. She leaves her home with her mother in Ohio to live with her father and stepmother in Jackson, Mississippi (hence the title). Mim is unhappy with her new life and when she learns that her mother is sick, she hops on a Greyhound bus and heads for Cleveland, Ohio. Along the way, Mim will meet a cast of characters whose stories are as complicated as her own; and not all of them have good intentions.
The subject matter in this YA novel covers a wide range of difficult topics from mental illness to dysfunctional families. Mim’s struggle with anxiety and her strained relationship with her mother push her to experiment with her identity in odd — and controversial — ways. Native American readers in particular have taken offense to Arnold’s treatment of Mim’s (mostly imagined) Cherokee heritage. She’s one-sixteenth Cherokee on her mother’s side, but she claims one-quarter. When she’s feeling insecure or anxious, Mim dons lipstick “war paint” to steel herself and connect with what she strongly believes is her heritage. Many Native Americans fear that Misquitoland exposes young readers to inaccurate and damaging stereotypes.
In Arnold’s defense, I found these scenes to be more telling of Mim’s often misguided world view and flawed coping mechanisms. And I would like to give teen readers enough credit to detect this as well. In response to heated criticism, Arnold submitted this
“…in this broader conversation about diversity in literature, as a straight, white male, oftentimes it’s going to be my role to sit down, to be quiet, to listen and to learn […] Mim makes a lot of questionable decisions, but across the board I felt the need to be completely authentic to her character.” (americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com/)
At the very least, Mosquitoland is powerful on the sentence level. Beautiful language and interesting narration (by Mim) make it an enjoyable read. I recommend it to YA book clubs and readers mature enough to discern its problematic nature. You can watch the book trailer here: http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x35z4oj.