By Raphael Simon
Raphael Simon is best known as Pseudonymous Bosch, the author of the popular, and wonderful, Secret Series. “The Anti-Book” is his first book under his real name. Its protagonist is the very angry 12-year-old Mickey. He’s angry at his sister. He’s angry at his sister’s boyfriend. He’s angry at his just-divorced parents. He’s angry at his new stepmoms (both named Charlie). He’s angry at the world. It’s an anger that is real and hard.
But there’s “at least one thing” Mickey likes: Bubble Gum King bubble gum. There’s a little prize in every pack.
This time the prize is a coupon for a mysterious “Anti-Book.” The ad reads:
DO YOU EVER WISH EVERYONE WOULD GO AWAY?
ARE YOU ANTI-EVERYTHING?
THE ANTI-BOOK IS THE ANSWER!
The book arrives. And inside it’s blank, except for the words “To erase it, write it.”
Mickey does exactly that. He writes a list of the people and things he’d like to erase from his life. Sister, mom, dad, school, tight underwear, loose underwear, things that don’t come with batteries: It’s a long list.
Anyone who’s made a seemingly life-ending mistake will shiver when Mickey discovers it worked. Soon, though, the things on his list are replaced by weird, twisted, mind-bending versions of themselves. Unlike Norton Juster’s “The Phantom Tollbooth,” in which the protagonist is launched into a bizarre fantasy world full of awe and wonder, “The Anti-Book”’s anti-world is scary from the get-go. There are no early wish-fulfillment adventures, as in Michael Ende’s “The Neverending Story” or movies like “Labyrinth” or “Home Alone.” “The Anti-Book” is darker — and closer to tween truth.
I read “The Anti-Book” with a pit-in-my-stomach feeling. I mean, the kid wished away his life and his world, and the wish came true. Worse, he seems to have doomed his sister, parents, dog, everything.
Can this situation be reversed or corrected? Has Mickey’s anger taken him far beyond anything he ever intended?
Mickey is an unexpected and refreshing protagonist — truly angry, truly grouchy, truly sour. Simon doesn’t pull his punches with Mickey, which is why the character works. Because Mickey’s anger and confusion come from a real place — the mystery and frustration around family and self — they speak to the ignored and overwhelmed and just so furious at the world kid in all of us.
And as it becomes clear that the thing Mickey dislikes and fears most is himself, we feel guilty and complicit for not being more sympathetic from the start.
“The Anti-Book” is filled with clever wordplay and puns come-to-life. Its world crackles with imagination. Talking cookies, disappearing bridges, reverse gravity, a housefly turned flying house, a car with arms, a nightmarish screaming mime.
Chapters are short and fast. Sentences are punchy. The writing is packed with dialogue. To read “The Anti-Book” is to jump on — and hold on.
There’s discovery around relationships with siblings, parents, stepparents and boy/girlfriends. There’s insight into despair and denial and confusion.
“The Anti-Book” is a surprisingly powerful, formula-breaking coming-of-age story. It’s captivating to watch Mickey gain a sense of self and awareness as he moves beyond anger and develops an appreciation for and understanding of increasingly mature emotions.