Before Takeoff

Knopf. Jun. 2022. 336p. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9780593375761.
Gr 7 Up–This exquisite piece of speculative fiction powerfully highlights the challenges facing young adults by creating a microcosm of the world’s problems inside the Atlanta airport. Disasters including the development of extreme indoor “airport microclimates” and the unexplained disappearance of over 300 people lead to a variety of reactions, altogether providing a nuanced portrait of human nature. Strangers James, cued as Latinx, and Michelle, biracial French and Thai, witness and experience the prejudice driving many acts of fear and rage. They move through the chaos while sharing vulnerable conversations, particularly the fears of facing a world that often seems more bad than good. The juxtaposition of their discussions within the rampant senselessness allows numerous themes to flourish, from the power of storytelling to the capacity of humans to find joy. The defining feature of this novel is the narrative voice, which has a snarky omniscience that deftly balances empathy and humor, gifted with an engaging self-awareness. The narrator’s insistence that the events are random and largely unexplainable nimbly manages reader expectations for the book’s resolution. Glimpses into the lives and minds of basically every person who enters the story provides truly excellent characterization, humanizing individuals who would otherwise be part of a nameless mass. This technique is a perfect example of James’s final suggestion to Michelle: the world is scary when you only see the big picture, but if you zoom in to look at individuals, it seems like a better place.
VERDICT An honest, evocative, and multilayered examination of humanity, full of both fear and hope. Recommended for first purchase.

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