05 Nov / Year of the Jungle: Memories from the Home Front by Suzanne Collins, illustrated by James Proimos
With the impending release of the book-to-screen adaptation of Catching Fire on November 22, Suzanne Collins will again be back in the headlines sooner than later. Although The Hunger Games trilogy is what made her a household name, Collins does have other (dare I say … even better) books. I stayed ever so partial to the five-part Gregor the Overlander volumes, but this, her latest, has just moved into the favored Collins spot.
Year of the Jungle begins and ends with the same sentences: “My dad reads me poems by a man named Ogden Nash. My favorite is about a dragon named Custard. Even though he always feels afraid, he is the bravest of all. And that’s what makes him special.” In between the first and final pages, a year passes – 1968 – after which, life can never be the same.
“My dad has to go to something called a war. It’s in a place called Viet Nam,” the little girl narrator explains. From the father’s postcards, we learn the girl is Suzy or Little Sue. And in case you’re still unsure who she might be, the black-and-white photograph of Collins in 1968 at book’s end will banish any lingering doubts.
Suzy, her older sisters Kathy and Joanie, her brother Drew, even Rascal the cat, all keep an eye on their mother “[j]ust in case she’s thinking about going to the jungle, too,” where their father has been deployed. The passing holidays – Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas – are marked by postcards, and then an errant birthday card arrives months too early. “The jungle must be a very confusing place for him to make such a serious mistake,” Suzy muses. After a few months of silence, another postcard finally arrives, this time signed with “Pray for me.” While worry grows, forgetting happens, too: “Sometimes it’s hard to remember what my dad looks like … So many things are scary now.”
And then her father finally returns. And yet, “[h]e is here but not here.” Suzy is bursting to talk to him: “I need to tell him what I know. About the jungle. About the things that happen there.” But she’s still a little girl searching for understanding: “The words are hard to get hold of.” No matter how glad she is that he’s finally home, she also realizes, “Some things have changed but some things will always be the same.”
While Collins might be the current reigning queen of teen dystopia, Year of the Jungle confirms she’s quite the effective spokesperson for a growing genre of books targeting the left-behind children of deployed military: recent examples include Deborah Ellis’ Off to War: Voices of Soldiers’ Children, Jill Biden’s Don’t Forget, God Bless Our Troops, and Pat Brisson’s Sometimes We Were Brave. Colorfully brought to the page by James Proimos’ complementary naïf-style pictures, Collins provides just the right balance between the challenges of waiting – the unavoidable images in the media, the frustrations of forgetting, the fear of an unknown future – and the insistent belief of a parent’s someday-return. Move over, Katniss … Suzy is her own best heroine yet.