A 2015 Michael L. Printz Honor Book
Winner of the 2014 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Fiction
"Raunchy, bizarre, smart and compelling." Rolling Stone
“Grasshopper Jungle is simultaneously creepy and hilarious. Reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut’s in “Slaughterhouse Five,” in the best sense.” New York Times Book Review
In the small town of Ealing, Iowa, Austin and his best friend, Robby, have accidentally unleashed an unstoppable army. An army of horny, hungry, six-foot-tall praying mantises that only want to do two things.
This is the truth. This is history.
It’s the end of the world. And nobody knows anything about it.
You know what I mean.
Funny, intense, complex, and brave, Grasshopper Jungle brilliantly weaves together everything from testicle-dissolving genetically modified corn to the struggles of recession-era, small-town America in this groundbreaking coming-of-age stunner.
About the Author
Andrew Smith is the award-winning author of several young adult novels, including the critically acclaimed Winger and The Marbury Lens. He is a native-born Californian who spent most of his formative years traveling the world. His university studies focused on Political Science, Journalism, and Literature. He has published numerous short stories and articles. Grasshopper Jungle is his seventh novel. He lives in Southern California. You can learn more at authorandrewsmith.com and follow him on Twitter: @marburyjack.
Read an Excerpt
I read somewhere that human beings are genetically predisposed to record history.
We believe it will prevent us from doing stupid things in the future. But even though we dutifully archived elaborate records of everything we’ve ever done, we also managed to keep on doing dumber and dumber shit.
This is my history.
There are things in here: babies with two heads, insects as big as refrigerators, God, the devil, limbless warriors, rocket ships, sex, diving bells, theft, wars, monsters, internal combustion engines, love, cigarettes, joy, bomb shelters, pizza, and cruelty.
Just like it’s always been.
Robby Brees and I made the road the Ealing Mall is built on.
Before we outgrew our devotion to BMX bicycles, the constant back-and-forth ruts we cut through the field we named GrasshopperJungle became the natural sweep of Kimber Drive, as though the dirt graders and street engineers who paved it couldn’t help but follow the tracks Robby and I had laid.
Robby and I were the gods of concrete rivers, and history does prove to us that wherever boys ride bicycles, paved roadways ribbon along afterward like intestinal tapeworms.
So the mall went up—built like a row of happy lower teeth— grinned for a while, and then about a year ago some of the shops there began shutting down, blackening out like cavities when people left our town for other, better places.
BMX riding was for middle-school kids.
We still had our bikes, and I believe that there were times Robby and I thought about digging them out from the cobwebbed corners of our families’ garages. But now that we were in high school—or at least in high school classes, because we’d attended Curtis Crane Lutheran Academy since kindergarten—we rode skateboards, and also managed to sneak away in Robby’s old car.
We were in tenth grade, and Robby could drive, which was very convenient for me and my girlfriend, Shann Collins.
We could always depend on Robby. And I counted on the hope—the erotic plan I fantasized over—that one night he’d drive us out along the needle-straight roads cutting through the seas of cornfields surrounding Ealing, and Robby wouldn’t say anything at all as I climbed on top of Shann and had sex with her right there on the piles of Robby’s laundry that always seemed to lie scattered and unwashed in the dirty old Ford Explorer his dad left behind.
On The Friday that ended our painfully slow first week after spring break, Robby and I took our boards and skated through the filthy back alley of Grasshopper Jungle.
Nobody cared about skaters anymore.
Well, at least nobody cared among the four remaining businesses that managed to stay open in the Ealing Mall after the McKeon plant closed down: The laundromat Robby never quite made it to, The Pancake House, and the liquor and thrift stores owned by Shann’s stepdad.
So we could skate there, and did pretty much whatever we wanted to do.
Judging from the empty beer cans, the mysterious floral sleeper sofa we were certain was infested with pubic lice, and the pungent smell of piss in the alley, it was clear everyone else in Ealing was similarly okay with the no-limits code of conduct in Grasshopper Jungle, too.
And that proved to be an unfortunate fact for me and Robby on that Friday.
We had built ramps from sagging flaps of plywood that we laid across a flight of concrete steps behind a vacant unit that used to be a foot doctor’s office.
“Bad business plan,” Robby said.
“Fixing people’s feet in a town everyone’s dying to run away from.”
Robby was so smart it hurt my head to think about how sad he could be sometimes.
“We should go into business,” I said.
“Want to have a fag?”
Robby liked calling cigarettes fags.
There was no way we’d ever sit down on that couch. We upended blue plastic milk crates and sat with forearms resting across our knees while we propped our feet on our boards and rocked them back and forth like we floated over invisible and soothing waves.
Robby was a better smoker. He could inhale thick, deep clouds of cigarette smoke and blow life-sized ghost models of both of us when he’d casually lean back and exhale.
I liked cigarettes, but I’d never smoke if Robby didn’t.
“What kind of business?” Robby said.
“I don’t know. I could write stuff. Maybe comic books.”
“And you could draw me.” Robby took a big drag from his cigarette. “I’d be like your spokes model or something.”
I have to explain.
I have that obsession with history, too.
In one corner of my closet, stacked from the floor to the middle of my thigh, sits a pile of notebooks and composition binders filled with all the dumb shit I’ve ever done. My hope was that, one day, my dumb history would serve as the source for countless fictional accounts of, well, shit.
And I drew, too. There were thousands of sketches of me, of Shann and Robby, in those books.
I consider it my job to tell the truth.
“What, exactly, does a spokes model do?”
“We speak. And look good at the same time. It’s a tough job, so I’d expect to make decent money.”
“The shit out of it, Porcupine.”
Robby called me Porcupine because of how I wore my hair. I didn’t mind. Everyone else called me Austin.
It is Polish.
Sometimes, in wonder, I can marvel at the connections that spider web through time and place; how a dying bull in Tsarist Russia may have been responsible for the end of the world in Ealing, Iowa.
It is the truth.
When he was a young man, Andrzej Szczerba, who was my great-great-great-grandfather, was exiled from his home in a small farming village called Kowale. Andrzej Szczerba had been involved in a radical movement to resist the imposition of Russian language and culture on Poles. Andrzej, like many Polish boys, hoped that one day his country, which had been treated like a sausage between the dog jaws of selfish neighboring empires, would be able to stand on its own.
It was a good idea, but it was not going to happen in Andrzej’s lifetime.
So Andrzej was forced to leave Kowale—and travel to Siberia.
He did not get very far.
The train carrying the exiled Andrzej derailed when it struck a dying bull that had collapsed on the tracks. It was a terrible accident. Andrzej was left, presumed dead, abandoned in the middle of a snowy field.
Andrzej Szczerba wore a silver medallion with an image of Saint Casimir, who was the patron saint of Poland, on a chain around his neck. He believed Saint Casimir had saved his life in the train wreck, and every day for the rest of his life, Andrzej would kiss the medal and say a prayer, thanking Saint Casimir.
It was a fortunate thing for me that Andrzej Szczerba did not die in that snowy field. Wounded, he walked for two days until he came to the town of Hrodna, where he hid from the Russians and ultimately married a Polish girl named Aniela Masulka, who was my great-great-great-grandmother.
Andrzej’s healthy Polish semen made four Catholic children with Aniela—two boys and two girls.
Only one of them, his youngest son, Krzys, would ever end up near Ealing, Iowa.
This is my history.
LOUIS ASKS A RHETORICAL QUESTION
We leaned our backs against the cinder-block wall, smoking in the cut of shade from a green rolling dumpster, and at just about the same time I talked Robby into taking his car to drive us over to Shann Collin’s new old house, I looked up and noticed the population of Grasshopper Jungle had increased uncomfortably.
Four boys from Herbert Hoover High, the public school, had been watching us while they leaned against the galvanized steel railing along the edge of the stairway we had been using for a ramp.
“Candy Cane faggots, getting ready to make out with each other in Piss Alley.”
The Candy Cane thing—that was what Hoover Boys enjoyed calling boys from Curtis Crane Lutheran Academy. Not just because it kind of rhymed. We had to wear ties to school. Whoever invented the uniform could have planned better to avoid the striped red-and-white design of them. Because when we’d wear our ties, white shirts, and blue sweaters with the little embroidered crosses inside blood red hearts, you couldn’t help but think we looked like, well, patriotic, Christian-boy candy canes.
But Robby and I weren’t big enough losers to still be wearing our uniforms while skating.
Well, we weren’t so much skating as smoking cigarettes, actually.
Robby wore a Hormel Spam T-shirt and baggy jeans with holes in them he sagged so low you could see half his citrus-motif boxers. They had oranges and lemons on them.
Citrus does not grow in Iowa.
I wore yellow-and-green basketball shorts and a black Orwells tee. So we didn’t look like candy cane boys.
The Orwells are a punk band from Illinois.
The other part—the faggot part—well, let’s just say Robby got picked on.
I only knew one of the boys: Grant Wallace. It’s hard not to know pretty much every kid in a town the size of Ealing, even if you didn’t pay too much attention to people as a rule.
However, I did know this: Grant and his friends were there for no other reason than to start crap.
It was bound to be historic, too.
And two 140-pound Candy Cane faggot sophomores with cigarettes and skateboards were not likely to stop anything four bored and corn-fed twelfth-graders from Hoover had in mind.
Robby just sat back casually against the wall, puffing away on his cigarette.
I couldn’t help but think he looked like a guy in one of those old black-and-white movies about firing squads and blindfolds and the Foreign Legion and shit like that.
One of Grant’s friends, a pudgy guy with a face full of whiteheads and only one eyebrow, took his cell phone out from his pocket and began recording video of us.
Consult history: Nothing good ever happens when cell phones are used to record video.
And I guess that was as good as Grant’s directorial cue to begin.
“Let me and Tyler borrow you guys’ skateboards for a few minutes. We’ll bring them back.”
Tyler must have been the mule-faced kid on Grant’s right, because he nodded, all excited, an encouragement for us to be cooperative Candy Cane faggots.
But Robby said no before the question was entirely out of Grant’s mouth.
The truth is—and history will back me up on this, too—that when kids like Grant ask kids like me and Robby if they can borrow stuff like skateboards, the boards are either going to get stolen, or the kids like me and Robby are going to be beaten up and then the boards are going to get stolen.
The way kids like me and Robby get beaten up first is when one of them says no.
History class is over for today.
We got beaten up by Grant Wallace, Tyler, and some other kid who smelled like he had barf on his sleeves, while the fourth kid filmed it with his cell phone.
Oh, and extra credit in history: You should never wear loose mesh basketball shorts and boxer underwear if you’re going to get kneed in the balls. Just so you know for the future.
I don’t even think either one of us made it all the way to his feet before the kicks and punches started. Robby got a bloody nose.
Grant took our boards and chucked them up onto the roof of The Pancake House.
Then the four Hoover Boys took our shoes off and threw them on the roof, too.
And if the boards didn’t make such a racket when they landed, Grant and his friends would have taken Robby’s and my pants and sent them up to shoe-and-skateboard heaven, too. But the Chinese guy named Louis who worked in the kitchen of The Pancake House stuck his face out the back door, and asked, politely, what we thought we were doing.
I do not know what I thought I was doing.
But that question, in itself, when asked by a Chinese pancake chef named Louis, was enough to make Grant and his friends call an end to their diversion.
I was curled up on my side, cupping my nuts, while the sleeve of my black Orwells T-shirt adhered to some gooey piss stain on Grasshopper Jungle’s asphalt.
Grant and the Hoover Boys left, and Louis, apparently satisfied with the lack of an answer to his rhetorical question about what we boys thought we were doing, shut the door.
For a moment, I found myself wondering, too, why guys like Grant Wallace, who called guys like me and Robby Brees faggots, always seemed to take pleasure in removing the trousers of littler guys.
That would be a good question for the books, I thought.
THERE’S BLOOD ON YOUR SPAM
“Are you hurt?”
“Balls. Knee. Boxers.”
“There’s blood on your Spam.”
GRANT WALLACE MURDERED ME
Robby felt bad, not because of his bloody nose. Because he blamed himself when things like this happened. He cried a little, and that made me sad.
History shows, after things like that, you either get up and have a cigarette, in your socks, with your bloody friend, or you don’t.
Since it wasn’t time for Robby and me to die, we decided to have a smoke.
I believe Andrzej Szczerba would have wanted a smoke when he pulled himself, bloodied, up from the wreckage in that snowy field in Poland.
There are as many theories on how to deal with a bloody nose as there are ears of corn in all the combined silos of Iowa.
Robby’s approach was artistic.
Propping himself dog-like on his hands and knees, he hung his head down, depositing thick crimson coins of blood from his nostrils and simultaneously puffing a cigarette, while he drip-drip-dripped a pointillist message on the blacktop: GRANT WALLACE MURDERED ME
I watched and smoked and wondered how our shoes and skateboards were getting along, up there on the roof.
Unfortunately, as funny as it was to both of us, Robby stopped bleeding after forming the second A, so he only got as far as GRANT WA
“Nobody’s going to know what that means,” I said.
“I should have used lowercase.”
“Lowercase does use less blood. And a smaller font. Everyone knows that.”
“Maybe you should punch me again.”
I realized I’d never punched anyone in my life.
“I don’t think so, Robby. You got any quarters on you?”
“Let’s go throw our shirts in the laundry place. You need to learn how to use those things anyway.”
Excerpted from "Grasshopper Jungle"
Copyright © 2015 Andrew Smith.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Young Readers Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What People are Saying About This
“A literary joy to behold. . . . reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, in the best sense.”
—The New York Times Book Review
"This raunchy, bizarre, smart and compelling sci-fi novel defies description – it's best to go into it with an open mind and allow yourself to be first drawn in, then blown away."
“[Grasshopper Jungle] reads more like an absurdist Middlesex… and is all the better for it. A-”
“Nuanced, gross, funny and poignant, it's wildly original.”
—The San Francisco Chronicle
“If you appreciate kooky humor, sentences that bite, and a nuanced understanding of human beings’ complicated natures and inexplicable actions, then you, too, will love Smith’s bold, bizarre, and beautiful novel.”
—The Boston Globe
“The end of the world comes with neither a bang nor a whimper but with a dark chuckle and the ominous click-click of giant insect mandibles in this irreverent, strangely tender new novel by Andrew Smith. This but hints at the intricately structured, profound, profanity-laced narrative between these radioactive-green covers.”
—The Washington Post
“Andrew Smith’s writing grabs you. He takes phrases and turns them into recurring motifs that punctuate the story, until by the end you start to expect them, maybe even mutter them to yourself. And the way that he takes all these seemingly disparate plot strands and weaves them together is masterful… Once you get lost in Grasshopper Jungle you won’t want to be found.”
“No author writing for teens today can match Andrew Smith’s mastery of the grotesque, the authentic experiences of teenage boys or the way one seamlessly becomes a metaphor for the other.”
—BookPage, Top February Teen Pick
"A meanderingly funny, weirdly compelling and thoroughly brilliant chronicle of ‘the end of the world, and shit like that’...a mighty good book."
—Kirkus, starred review
"Filled with gonzo black humor, Smith's outrageous tale makes serious points about scientific research done in the name of patriotism and profit, the intersections between the personal and the global, the weight of history on the present, and the often out-of-control sexuality of 16-year-old boys."
— Publishers Weekly, starred review
"Original, honest, and extraordinary… pushes the boundaries of young adult literature."
—School Library Journal, starred review
“Grasshopper Jungle plays like a classic rock album, a killing machine of a book built for the masses that also dives effortlessly into more challenging, deeper regions of emotion. Above all else, when it's done you want to play it all over again. It's sexy, gory, hilarious, and refreshingly amoral. I wish I'd had this book when I was fifteen. It almost makes me sad that it took twenty years to finally find what I'd been looking for.”
—Jake Shears, lead singer of Scissor Sisters
“Grasshopper Jungle is a cool/passionate, gay/straight, male/female, absurd/real, funny/moving, past/present, breezy/profound masterpiece of a book. Every time you think you've figured it out, you haven't. Every time you're sure Andrew Smith must do this, he does that instead. Grasshopper Jungle almost defies description because description can only rob the reader of the pleasure of surrendering to a master storyteller. Original, weird, sexy, thought-provoking and guaranteed to stir controversy. One hell of a book.”
—Michael Grant, New York Times bestselling author of the Gone series
“I found myself saying over and over again, ‘Where in the heck is he going with this?’ all the while turning the pages as fast as I could. Mostly I kept thinking, This was a brave book to write.”
—Terry Brooks, author of the Shannara series
“Andrew Smith is the bravest storyteller I know. Grasshopper Jungle is the most intelligent and gripping book I've read in over a decade. I didn't move for two days until I had it finished. Trust me. Pick it up right now. It's a masterpiece.”
—A. S. King, Printz Honor-winning author of Ask the Passengers and Please Ignore Vera Dietz
“In Grasshopper Jungle, it’s as if Andrew Smith is somehow possessed by the ghost of Kurt Vonnegut. This book is nothing short of a brilliant, hilarious thrill-ride that is instantly infectious. But, the most beautiful thing about Grasshopper Jungle has nothing to do with the absurd or out-of-this-world. It is the deft hand by which Smith explores teenage love and sexuality that is truly breathtaking. In writing a history of the end of the world, Smith may have just made history himself.”
—John Corey Whaley, Printz Award-winning author of Where Things Come Back
“Grasshopper Jungle is about the end of the world. And everything in between.”
—Alex London, author of Proxy
“Austin’s narrative voice fizzes with catchphrases that keep the reader on track as he dives into history and backstory. His obsessively repetitive but somehow endearing style calls to mind Vonnegut and Heller. This novel approaches its own edge of sophisticated brutality, sensory and intellectual overload, and sheer weirdness, and then jumps right off.”