I recently finished Everybody Sees the Ants by A.S. King and enjoyed it. Beware spoilers ahead…
It begins with Lucky Linderman, an ordinary high school student, except that he was being bullied. Badly bullied. Growing up, he rarely felt like he fit in, but did okay, skating under the radar, until he developed a questionnaire about suicide for a class project. Then it wasn’t only teachers who took notice, but the bullies as well. Lucky became the target of Nader McMillan. The abuse finally went too far at the town pool during the summer when McMillian crushes Lucky’s face into the asphalt.
McMillan was not Lucky’s only problem. His mom was a squid. She swam obsessively to deal with her problems, but once out of the pool pretended everything was fine. His dad was a turtle, retreating from problems, rather than dealing with them. One of those problems had appeared in Lucky’s dreams. Lucky’s father was severely impacted by the fact that his dad, Lucky’s grandfather, never made it back from the Vietnam War. Every night throughout the novel, Lucky’s grandfather showed up in his dreams as he slept.
Lucky attempted to save his grandfather each night, and these escape attempts helped him cope. In his dangerous, wartime dreamscape, Lucky was strong and heroic. I constantly questioned, was it only a dream because Lucky woke up with more than memories. Items such as cigarettes and chewing gum were at his bedside when he awoke.
The protagonist had another secret as well. Ants. The insects helped him cope with life and provided advice. They were his cheering squad, his conscious, and the inner voice that allowed him to successfully navigate the harsh realities around him.
After Lucky’s last run-in with Nader at the pool, his mom rushed him away to her brother’s house and the rest of his summer was spent in Tempe, Arizona. There, Lucky bonded with his Uncle Dave, until he learned his uncle was not the stellar man he pretended to be, cheating on Aunt Jodi who turned to pills to cope. He also met an older, wiser teen, who he crushed over. She faced problems of her own, but her situation finally allowed Lucky put his life into perspective.
What I loved about the book was the reality and complexity of the characters, family dynamics, and the plot, which is why I spent so much time outlining it above. Often, I parents are made out to be cliché in books about teens, but all the characters were realistic and believable in Everybody Sees the Ants. I especially liked how Lucky’s mom was portrayed. As a reader (and mom), I could see how much she cared for her son even if she didn’t know what to do about the bullying. While all the characters displayed shortcomings, which only made them more realistic, the relationships came across as truthful and loving. At the end, there was hope for a better future.
It was interesting to view the world through Lucky’s eyes, giving the reader a truthful teen perspective. He disliked his overbearing, pill-popping aunt until he realizes she was coping with a cheating husband that everyone in town seems to know about. Once Lucky realizes his aunt’s life is as complicated as his own, he shows empathy for her situation and develops a connection with her.
The pacing was exceptional, and I enjoyed how the author took Lucky away from the bullying for a while so he could examine life and find himself. Ants was an intense story, but it could have been much darker. Removing Lucky from the bullying gave the reader much needed levity because even though the reader is removed from the day to day bullying, they learn about how truly heinous the situation had become for Lucky. When he shares the “real story” to his new friends it was emotional. I guessed the twist early on, but still felt the impact of it, when the truth was told.
The use of magical realism remained excellent throughout the story. It could be hard for a reader to suspend disbelief if the magical realism doesn’t ring true enough, but I had no problem believing the magical realism of Lucky’s dreams and loved how at the end, Lucky brought his grandfather’s wedding ring to his dad. Magical moment. Tears. Throughout the novel, the author also used the dreams as a way to help Lucky escape from reality. In the dreams, he was both physically fit and mentally strong. By the end of the story, Lucky realizes he brought those same qualities to his day to day life.
My critique of the story centered around the fact that it read a little dated. Even though it was written in 2014, there were no cell phones. This left me confused. In addition, the ants, a figment of Lucky’s imagination, also left me a little chagrined. While I was able to embrace the dreams as magical realism, the ants were a little harder to accept. At points, I wondered what their role was in the novel. These were minor faults in a stellar read.
Five ants!!!! Over all, a great read and one I would highly recommend to students.