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Saturday, March 31, 2018

The Serpent King: It Isn't Really About Snakes!

Recently, I attended Spring Institute, which is a yearly conference for Michigan youth librarians. One of the key note speeches was given by Jeff Zentner, who spoke about his burgeoning career as a young adult author in addition to being a full time prosecutor in Nashville, Tennessee. Zentner was invited to speak at Spring Institute because his debut novel, The Serpent King, was the recipient of the 2017 Thumbs Up Award. This award is given by the Michigan Librarian Association to the best young adult novel of the year. Unlike many awards of its kind, the Thumbs Up also includes a teen vote, which I think is truly important. After all, what is the point of giving an award to a book that is only liked by librarians and not appreciated by its intended audience? I figured that I should read something by Zentner before hearing him speak so I checked out The Serpent King about a week before the conference. Even though teen drama is not my preferred genre (I am more of a sci-fi/fantasy chick), I devoured The Serpent King in less then 24 hours.

The story is alternately told by three high school seniors in a rural Tennessee town. Dill lives in constant shame as the only son of a defrocked, snake-handling pastor who was sent to prison for pornography. Lydia is Dill's best friend, and also the girl that he secretly loves (it wouldn't be a young adult novel without some unrequited love). Sardonic, creative, and uber smart Lydia has achieved national fame as a fashion blogger, but remains a pariah in her own high school. Rounding out their trio of outcasts is Travis, a 6'5" gentle giant who spends the majority of his time inhabiting the fantasy world of Bloodfall (a fictional facsimile of Wheel of Time or Lord of the Rings).

The Serpent King beautifully tackles such issues as abuse, bullying, faith, friendship, and first love. The novel also really spoke to me as a parent. Dill, Lydia, and Travis come from three vastly different homes that exemplify how a child's life can be influenced by a parent's unconditional (or lack there of) love, protection, and support. Lydia's parents come across as being perfect: nurturing, understanding, trusting, and fun. As a result Lydia is a strong and happy individual who seems almost destined for success. On the flip side, Dill's parents encumber their son with crushing guilt, debts, and other adult responsibilities. Sweet and kindhearted Travis lives in the constant shadow of his older brother, Matt, who was a soldier killed in Afghanistan. His father, overcome with grief, has become a malicious alcoholic and his mother, despite her obvious love for Travis, does nothing to protect her son from his father's physical and mental abuse. Obviously, these are three rather extreme examples of parenting (how many of us know snake-handling preachers?), but they made me think about what expectations I have for my kids and what kind foundation I have laid for them . As a mom I aspire to be like Lydia's parents. I want to to not only love and care for my kids but I also want all four to discover their dreams and have the fortitude to turn those dreams into reality. It is also my responsibility to be that soft and safe place for my children to land when calamity, sorrow, humiliation, or disappointment occurs. I know, this is probably not what most teens would take from The Serpent King, but, hey, I am a mama first.
Of course, it would not be a young adult drama without some soul-crushing tragedy. Be forewarned that I bawled uncontrollably for a good hour and a half while reading The Serpent King. I purchased a copy and had Jeff Zentner sign it for my 16 year old daughter, Zoe, at the conference. When I gave it to her she asked with a certain amount of trepidation "Isn't this book that you were crying about last week?" Yes, The Serpent King will break your heart but I promise that you will also laugh, rejoice, and, most importantly, feel hopeful that no hardship is insurmountable.

I am excited toread Zentner's second young adult novel, Goodbye Days, but I am slightly apprehensive since it says "heartbreaking" right on the cover. I may have to wait till I emotionally recover from The Serpent King:) Zentner's third book, Rayne and Delilah's Midnite Matinee comes out in spring of 2019.