by Janne Teller
In A Nutshell
There are lots of ways to get out of doing your homework, and we're sure you've familiar with most of them. But have you ever tried standing up on the first day of school, announcing your existential crisis to the entire class, and then walking out the door and climbing a plum tree? We didn't think so. And that, friends, is why you'll want to read Janne Teller's Nothing: to live vicariously through the seventh-grade renegade that is Pierre Anthon.
Nothing is Janne Teller's first book for young adults, and it's a killer. Or rather, (spoiler alert!) its characters turn into killers, though you don't see it coming at first. What you do see coming is a whole lot of philosophy: Teller's adult novels and essays have a strong philosophical bent, and when she opens Nothing with 12-year-old Pierre Anthon stating that nothing matters (hence the title) and taking up residence in a plum tree in a hippie commune, we won't blame you if you roll your eyes and turn back to your Xbox.
But hang in there, because, as with most banned books, there's some juicy stuff coming down the pike , and we're not just talking about the plums he throws at his classmates while taunting them with his assertions that they're all going to die so they might as will give up.
If you've found yourself thinking lately, "Hey, you know what I'd really like to read? An introduction to existential nihilism, complete with torture and beheading!", Nothing is right up your tree (sorry, we had to. At least we got it out of the way early.) If you haven't found yourself thinking that at all, but you really dug Lord of the Flies, you'll find Nothing to be a worthy sequel, even though it has nothing to do with British schoolboys, pigs, or the 1960s.
Or maybe you don't care about philosophy or Lord of the Flies at all, but you find yourself wondering sometimes if life has any meaning, or if anything is really worth doing. You don't need a diagnosis of clinical depression to have those thoughts, and we're willing to bet that at some point you've been pretty peeved by other people pretending to be something they're not. Well, there you go: at its cold, black heart, the conflict between appearances and reality is what Nothing is really about. It's that kind of whisper in the darkness of human experience, that tugging at the sleeve of your deepest doubts, that makes Nothing really something.
Although it was published in Denmark in 2000, Nothing wasn't (no, that's not a double negative) translated into English until 2010. The English translation by Martin Aitken was a 2011 Printz Honor Book, an American Library Association Batchelder Honor Book, a Booklist editor's choice pick, and a recipient of starred reviews from Booklist, Publisher's Weekly, and the notoriously hard-to-please Kirkus Reviews. Not too bad for a book originally banned in Scandinavia, by an author whose political and philosophical fiction has generated its fair share of controversy over the years.
Why Should I Care?
The obvious question is, of course, why should you care about a book about not caring? If you're of the Pierre Anthon school of thought, you should just put down the book right now, turn off your computer, drop out of school, and sit in a tree for the rest of your life. We won't stop you. But if you think maybe something in the world is worth caring about (Music? Art? Your cute biology classmate? French fries with ranch dressing? Hey, don't knock it 'til you try it), you'll want to see what happens in Nothing.
Atheneum, the U.S. publisher of Nothing, compared the book to a modern-day Lord of the Flies (source). And on the surface, it's easy to see the parallels: a group of kids create their own world without adult interference, and there's even a severed animal head. But the real similarity between the two books is that they're both cautionary tales about the danger of groupthink.
There's a reason both Nothing and Lord of the Flies feature junior-high-age characters. In Lord of the Flies, they're 12-year-old English schoolboys, and in Nothing, they're Danish 7th graders, but in both cases, they're at a time in their lives when fitting in with the crowd is pretty much the most important thing in the world. Our narrator Agnes uses the pronoun "we," meaning her classmates, more than she uses "I." Being different is a giant curse, and you can't get much more different than an existentialist 7th grader.
It's Pierre Anthon's declaration that nothing matters that sends his classmates spiraling totally out of control; they can't deal with someone being bold enough to be that different. They decide that if they can just prove to Pierre Anthon that something does matter, they can go on with life as they know it, a life in which they are all supposed to amount to something.
So they build the "heap of meaning," a pile of objects with sentimental value, with the hope of getting Pierre Anthon out of the tree. But things get even more complicated when a New York museum decides the heap of meaning is art and offers them money for it. When Sophie, who doesn't want to accept the deal, becomes the odd man out, she seeks her revenge on the original odd man out, the jaded Pierre Anthon. So it's sort of a Lord of the Flies-within-a-Lord of the Flies, if you will.
Any kid who's ever felt different from the group needs to read this book—not to learn why they should try harder to fit in, but rather to learn why sometimes it really is best to avoid groupthink altogether. Because, you know, murder and stuff.