of the Center for Children's Books:
Each month we offer a focus on a particular author or artist. Sometimes we use this space to discuss a rising new talent or an established star, but we also like to celebrate those who now live on only in the rich legacy of their books. See the archive for focus pieces from previous months.
Rising Star: Markus Zusak
Australian newcomer Markus Zusak has proven a fearless innovator in combining deliberately inventive language with brisk plots, stark urban settings, and sincere teen male protagonists who talk tough but secretly yearn for purpose and connection. Zusak's characters live in tactile worlds of physical, emotional privation, working long hours as cab drivers (I Am the Messenger) or taking punches in the ring (Fighting Ruben Wolfe) to support themselves and their families. When they narrate, however, the startling voices of these young men create a lush, self-conscious poetry—both visual, as sentence fragments form hypnotic staccato rhythms. Zusak thus brings a poetic sensibility to realistic prose, heightening emotional resonance through purposeful wordplay to create the complex, layered interiors of his protagonists.
Zusak's young men don't actually speak in verse, though Cameron's emotionally fraught meditations on stray pieces of paper in Getting the Girl are closer to poetry than journal entries. Nevertheless, the internal sense they make of their difficult, often gut-wrenchingly sad lives is unfailingly lyrical. Cameron, the protagonist of both Fighting Ruben Wolfe and its sequel, Getting the Girl , is an especially apt manipulator and interpreter of words. He exhibits keen eye and ear for language—terse sentence fragments personify emotions variously as blood, bones, and dogs (to name but a few common tropes), delivering a figurative punch. Literal punches come later, when introspective Cameron and his flashy, wise-cracking brother Ruben join a local boxing club to gain money (and possibly self-respect) in Fighting Ruben Wolfe. There's nothing flowery about Zusak's language, but its bleak, taut violence is nevertheless poetic–fear "tasted like blood in my mouth, and I could feel it slide through me and open me up when I saw him" – and words and phrases never mean only what they seem to mean on the surface. Of his brother's boxing name (and secret self-doubt), Cameron muses that "he's Fighting Ruben Wolfe. Or is he actually fighting Ruben Wolfe?" Similarly, "getting" the girl in Getting the Girl means understanding her as well as (and perhaps instead of) winning her. Yes, Cameron thinks about sex a lot, but his yearnings represent a desire for comfort and connection as well as physical pleasure. ("She might be there tomorrow. She might be there. She might be. She might. She."-- Fighting Ruben Wolfe. )
Zusak's latest novel, I Am the Messenger, combines this poetic realism with a chaos-fueled mystery. An anonymous tormentor is sending Ed Kennedy oblique messages on playing cards, whose contents he must not only interpret but deliver—often in the places and to the people one least suspects. Word choice is never accidental with Zusak, and thus the suits on the cards carry their own implicit messages—spaces involve emotional "digging," while hearts are the most dangerous suit because they can be broken "in the inside of the inside of me." Moreover, hearts "bleed," and blood in Zusak always connects thematically to family. It is perhaps fitting that Kennedy finds himself the bearer of messages he does not always understand, decoding language and signs to solve a larger puzzle about the meaning of existence—in a sense, he is interpreting poetry, and so is the reader. At the same time, questions about identity, family, and connection remain central, and if words call attention to themselves in Zusak, it only makes the characters that savor and rearrange them resonate with readers more strongly.