Henry K. Larsen — star of Susin Nielsen’s last novel — was a savvy young fellow: “I know I can’t change my stupid red hair or my stupid freckles. But I can lower my freak flag.”
In contrast, Stewart — star of her most recent novel — flies his freak flag high. Higher than high.
If you were to query him about it, he would probably — and happily — provide details regarding altitude and wind direction.
(And if you were actually laughing up your sleeve when you asked, he likely wouldn’t notice, or he might offer you a tissue.)
Henry could have given Stewart some pointers about the (regrettable but realistic) need for a certain kind of conformity.
(And, it’s true that some of Susin Nielsen’s characters do wander from book to book.)
But both boys struggle in a wake of a loss which would shake the foundations of any young person, change their definitions of highs and lows.
Nielsen excels at stirring the pot and plucking out problems for her young heroes and heroines.
Ambrose and Violet (who starred in Word Nerd and Dear George Clooney: Please Marry My Mom, Henry and Stewart: all have their share of difficulties. but because this is kidlit their endings remain hopeful. And because it’s kidlit-à-la-Susin-Nielsen, these endings are neither sugar-coated nor incredible.
In Stewart’s world, pre-Molecules, he was an essential corner of a triangle.
“We had been like an equilateral triangle. Mom was the base that held up the whole structure. When we lost her, the other two sides just collapsed in on each other.”
When We Are All Made of Molecules opens, that shape is changing.
“For a long time he was Sad Dad twenty-four-seven, and I was Sad Stewart twenty-four-seven, and together we were Sad Squared, and it was just a big black hole of sadness.”
Now geometrically speaking, the figure includes Stewart and his dad, but also the woman Leonard has been dating, Caroline, who is also Ashley’s mom.
But if Stewart and his dad were Sad Squared, then Ashley and her mom (who have been facing their own adjustments, their own sadness) make the situation Squared Squared.
(This which exhausts my mathematical ability. Stewart: help?)
Understandably, neither young person is entirely pleased with their parent dating the other parent; Stewart’s perspective is somewhat more analytical (he can rationalize his father’s interest) but neither is pleased with the adults’ decision to live together.
“Clearly my mother is delusional. Leonard is a huge step down. In fact, as far as I can tell, the only thing he has over my dad is that he is not gay—which I guess is a biggie, but still. There are a lot of not gay men out there, so why on earth did my mom go for this one?”
Ashley isn’t fond of Leonard, nor is she fond of Leonard’s “midget-egghead-freakazoid” son (that’s Stewart, whom she calls Spewart).
“‘Right now, as I’m talking to you, you’re probably picking up a few Stewart molecules and vice versa.’
She slapped her hand over her mouth. ‘Gross!’
‘I don’t think it’s gross. I think it’s kind of beautiful. Everything, and everyone, is interconnected.’”
But not everybody is as resistant to Stewart’s flag-waving charms.
“’What is the chemical formula for the molecules in candy?’
‘I don’t know,’ she replied.
“’Carbon-Holmium-Cobalt-Lanthanum-Tellurium.’ She looked at me blankly till I wrote down the elements’ symbols on the front of my notebook. ‘CHoCoLaTe!'”
(This is a spoiler-free space, so I won’t identify the speaker, but I will say that she giggled. And also, I really want a purple T-shirt which says “ALWAYS BE YOURSELF. UNLESS YOU CAN BE A UNICORN. THEN ALWAYS BE A UNICORN”.)
And new living arrangements and social stresses (for Stewart is adjusting to public school too, now that he no longer lives close enough to the school for gifted kids that he used to attend, and Ashley is adjusting to having Spewart in her grade) are not the only problems that these two kids face.
“If I am one hundred percent totally honest, I sometimes long for the olden days, when we were all just little dorks. Things are so much more complicated now.”
Stewart outwardly faces more challenges than Ashley (who keeps her freak flag in the closet, if she even has one) but he soon finds his niche.
“And Mathletes is just about the best thing that has ever happened to me. I fit in with Phoebe Schmidt, Walter Krasinski, George Hung, Oscar Bautista, Clark Fowler, and Aryama Daliwal. On Wednesday, we had our first actual competition against a high school on the west side called Trafalgar. Even though they had this one kid named Farley who was almost as good at math as I am, we won easily.”
(Committed Nielsen fans will recognize Phoebe and Farley, and those are not the only cameos in We Are All Made of Molecules, a device which hoists the whole beautiful and interconnected theme to the top of the flagpole.)
But Ashley faces a challenge which she could not have predicted, related to a romantic interest which develops between her and a new guy at school. Even she would probably like to return to some earlier time, when things were less complicated, than deal with the expectations which pile on her as the pages turn.
“The thing is: he’s so perfect in every other way. And usually he is very sweet to me. Maybe I can change the not-so-nice stuff over time. Men change for the better thanks to the love of a good woman all the time in the movies, so why not in real life?”
So, yes, there are some serious issues in this new work by Susin Nielsen. The characters she depicts are just slightly older than those she has spent time with in the past, and, as such, the issues they must confront are that much more complex.
But there is a good bit of humour in the work as well, which affords readers some relief as Stewart and Ashley learn to cope with the challenges they face.
“’But I’m not gay. Or lesbian, or bi, or transatlantic.’
Sam smirked. ‘I think you mean transgender.'”
Stewart and Ashley have some sharp edges when We Are All Made of Molecules begins, fitting for the straight-lines and squares and rectangles (or, should that be hexagons and octagons? no spoilers here!) they inhabit when readers meet them. But the contents swell and those edges are smoothed until they settle into a suitably Susin-Nielsen-esque ending: satisfying but not saccharine.
Susin Nielsen designs a freak flag like nobody else: bold and proud. Nuthin’ half-mast about it.