Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Book Review: Zac and Mia by A.J. Betts

Zac and Mia by A.J. Betts. 292 p. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, September, 2014. 9780544331648. (Purchased)

At seventeen, apparently Zac is too old for the pediatric cancer floor, so he's admitted to the adult cancer floor (which seems like cruel and unusual punishment to me). When loud music blares from the room next to his, his curiosity is piqued. So far on his cancer treatment journey, Cam, at thirty-two is the closest thing to a peer Zac has met. His neighbor is most definitely female and most definitely angry. Zac has been in isolation due to a bone marrow transplant for several weeks with only his mom to keep him company. He's going a bit stir-crazy. Even if he could meet Mia, he fears she may be way out of his league.

Mia, he learns, is a newbie - newly diagnosed with bone cancer, which is very, very treatable. Zac is an expert on survival odds of all sorts of cancers thanks to midnight sessions on Google. As someone who has relapsed, he knows his odds of five year survival are dwindling. Still, he copes by remaining positive and disarms people with his wicked sense of humor. Mia, whose relationship with her mother wasn't that great to begin with, is red-hot angry. She's surly and defiant and doesn't endear herself to the hospital staff at all.

The point-of-view shifts between Zac and Mia irregularly; a good chunk of the beginning of the book is just Zac's. He is clearly the more sympathetic of the characters and has a great relationship with family but especially his mother.

I liked this one. A lot. There were a couple of things that prevented me from loving it, mostly medical and timeline issues. Minor quibbles from an adult reader with a medical background. This is a well-done cancer book. I look forward to recommending it to my eighth graders who love sad books, cancer books, or, perhaps, The Fault in Our Stars. 

As an aside, I think the marketing team did a disservice to the book by likening it to The Fault in Our Stars and Eleanor and Park. TFIOS has a rather rabid, cult-like following passionate fans. While a majority of teen readers absolutely love this book without question, some despise it. Therefore, both types of fans may have a tendency to judge Zac and Mia harshly. 

I get the comparison to TFIOS only in that it features two smart teens facing the unimaginable. For me, Zac and Mia is the better book. And frankly, I don't see the comparison to Eleanor and Park at all. 

I don't look at Goodreads reviews or much mainstream publishing reviews until after I've read the book. While there is a good deal of love for this title, I was struck by the venom of some GR reviews. Those who were not trashing it because of the comparison were disliking the book because Mia was so unlikable, so bitchy. 


That is one of the novels strengths. Who says one has to like a main character for it to be a good book? Isn't it really a great thing to react viscerally to an unlikeable protagonist? Hasn't the author succeeded when that happens? Why not cut the (obnoxious) kid a break and try to understand where she is coming from? Believe me, folks who are undergoing cancer treatment experience a swirling, overwhelming myriad of emotions, including unbridled, utter fury at everything and everybody. They may or may not be heroic or strong or brave. They may eventually get to be heroic and strong and brave, or not. Even Zac scoffs at the idea that he is heroic; at how many FB friends he picked up because he's that kid with cancer; at the well-meaning but dickhead coach who gives him a pity prize at the Sports Award Dinner. Mia is one of the most honest portrayals of a teen with cancer I have ever read. She's right up there with Tessa from Before I Die by Jenny Downham. She makes this a great read. She makes it honest.

Zac and Mia won the Text Prize in Australia in 2012. I had never heard of this oddly named award; so I looked it up. Turns out the full name is The Text Prize for Young Adult and Children's Writing and this nifty prize is given to a manuscript! Read more about it and current and past award winners here. Once published, Zac and Mia went onto to win or be shortlisted for several other Australian awards. 

Consider adding it to your YA collection and recommending it to your teens.

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