I love young adult literature. Because I love fast-paced action, speedy plots, high stakes and heightened emotionality. I don’t necessarily expect all YAs to mix these traits with literary acumen; most don’t need both. So I’m always pleasantly surprised, and honestly, sometimes shocked, when a young adult author successfully mixes the commercial and the literary. Which is why We All Looked Up could be the first novel of an author who may stand beside Andrew Smith, E. Lockhart, Ilsa J. Bick, Gayle Forman and A.S. King. I know, I know, you’re all eye-rolling and thinking, “sure, you’re just saying that because you know the author.” The only thing I can say to that is: I have a number of published author friends and acquaintances, I do not write about all of them. Those I choose to write about are ones who have taught me artistically through their work.
Some of the best (and jealousy-inducing) aspects of We All Looked Up is Wallach’s unique, yet relatable images, metaphors, and humor. He does this through word choice. Word choices which create a signature style. Without giving too much away about the story, the contemporary, realistic novel follows four teens as they deal with the 66.6% chance that an asteroid will hit earth wiping out humanity.
The asteroid is introduced on page 13, “Against an eggplant-purple backdrop shone a single bright star, blue as a sapphire, like a fleck of afternoon someone had forgotten to wipe away” (Advanced Readers Copy). The sensational aspect of this sentence is the change of perspective. The dark, almost night sky with a lone blue star in it. The third clause inverts the perspective. Instead, the night sky is layered on top of the afternoon sky and a pinprick of blue shows through. The reader is shown the “backdrop” of night from backstage (afternoon sky). The inversion references the characters’ arcs whose lives should be laid out before them. Instead death awaits on the horizon.
Wallach has a wonderful way of mixing the ordinary with the extraordinary, turning the base into the unique. In the above, we’ve all seen that first star in the early night sky, the first of the cast to make its way on stage, and yet he makes it something more, something unique by choosing to swap the perspective, to think about an image from the other side.
Earlier describing a sunset, “…and all that was left of the day was that fugitive red glow on the horizon” (pg 8). Instead of the passive “setting sun,” he activates the image by inferring that it is being chased from the sky using a single word, “fugitive.” Later, the description of a character’s “mad pencil sketch” (pg 126) specifies an emotional state and character. A “pencil sketch” evokes a different image than a “mad” sketch. Again, specific, evocative word choice creates an image which in turn, colors the characters, depicts emotion and assists with world building.
Word choice also lends to the novel’s humor, which Wallach liberally doles out to counterbalance the seriousness of the given circumstances. “…the menagerie of monstrosities that made up the Hamilton orchestra” (pg 99) provokes a giggle, a memory of high schools’ required reading The Glass Menagerie, and, most importantly the image of teens in their most awkward, pubescent state made worse by the addition of graceless instruments to their silhouettes. A “menagerie of monstrosities” indeed. The “high” words and alliteration make this phrase amusing. Imagine instead “the group of geeks that made up the Hamilton orchestra,” or the like which lacks jocularity.
These comedic lines balance the novel well against its serious situation. However it is Wallach’s poetic language and images that raise We All Looked Up out of the typical YA ranks. There are too many examples for this blog post, so I’ll end with my favorite. While a protagonists develops her photos and hangs them to dry in the school’s dark room: “Images dissolved into being on the line” (pg 108). A simple, short, beautiful sentence which encompasses the story. To “dissolve” infers a going away, a loss, a death. And “into being” is creation. Wallach’s novel is just that: four kids, at the (potential) end of the world, becoming themselves.