Summary: Thrown together thanks to the blossoming romance of their parents, thirteen year-old Stewart and fourteen year-old Ashley find themselves sharing a house, a school and classes. Polar opposites, Stewart is a socially impaired brainiac while Ashley has trouble finding the right word at times and is at the top of the social ladder at school. Learning to live together isn’t easy, especially when complicated by Stewart’s grief over the death of his mother and Ashley’s reluctance to face the fact that her father is gay. Despite all the roadblocks to their relationship, when Ashley starts dating Jared, a guy Stewart comes to know is bad news, Stewart tries to warn her and protect her. Unfortunately it will take an extreme situation for Ashley to realise Stewart just might be the best brother she never had.
Number of Pages: 248
Age Range: 13-15
Review: We Are All Made of Molecules by Susin Nielsen is the kind of book that makes you sad it’s only 248 pages long.
Stewart and Ashley are unlikely step-siblings, but when their parents get together and Stewart and his father move in with Ashley and her mother, the two have little choice but to adjust to each other. It isn’t easy; while Stewart assumes Ashley is enthusiastic about his arrival, she isn’t, and miscommunications about the objects Stewart and his father bring with them cause some added family tension.
Not to mention the reasons that brought their parents together in the first place. While Stewart endeavours to deal with a new school situation to make his dead mother proud of him, Ashley is trying to keep her high social standing despite the fact that her father has recently come out of the closet. Each have unique methods of dealing with their situations, and Nielsen captures in their voice and perspectives their spirit in doing so.
Ultimately, Nielsen’s story is about a family coming together in a unique and altogether lovely way. Over time, all in the household learn to accommodate each other. Stewart and Ashley may clash, but there are incredible moments when they connect, and Nielsen also explores the adjustment their parents face in learning to parent someone else’s kid. Throw in Ashley’s dad and his partner Michael and it’s a pretty complex arrangement, but there’s just something about this eclectic family that clicks eventually.
I inevitably feel smarter by the time I finish whatever book of Nielsen’s I am reading. References to Einstein, Schrödinger’s Cat, and the complex nature of molecules all challenged me, and I ended up marvelling at Stewart’s intellect and enjoying the way he thinks. His charts are informative and endearing, and with the big heart and earnest nature he has, Stewart is an easily loveable character.
Ashley, on the other hand, takes time to love. With her focus on keeping her position at the top of the social ladder, she is intentionally cruel to the people she calls her friends. While they are cruel in return it doesn’t make it right, and unfortunately this antagonistic, stab-you-in-the-back kind of attitude is detrimental for Lauren when she doesn’t trust Ashley enough to listen to her warnings about Jared. My heart broke for her.
She may take more time than Stewart to embrace their new family, but she does eventually get it. And her response to her understanding is so Ashley yet remarkably mature and thoughtful.
Determining age range was a challenge. While there is such an innocence to Stewart and even Ashley I am tempted to peg it in the 11-13 range, as the book progressed and Ashley’s relationship with Jared develops it becomes clear Jared is violent, bigoted and a bully I felt this turn might be too much for a pre-teen audience. As with The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen, Nielsen’s work straddles the line between intermediate and teen fiction meaning with the more mature younger reader and the less experienced older reader, it can still work. I eventually decided on a 13-15 age range.
There are so many things to write but what I love most about Stewart and Ashley’s story is no matter who the reader is they are bound to be engaged by the characters, laughing out loud and witness to the creation of a family that may be unconventional but at the same time is meant to be together. It’s a story bursting with heart and humour, and I look forward to reading it again when it comes out officially in May.
“Molecules are made of atoms. When someone dies, their molecules break down, but their individual atoms don’t. So, say a carbon atom is part of a molecule in a person’s leg. When that person dies, that atom could become part of a molecule in something else, like a blooming flower, or even another human being. Or an oxygen atom in your sandwich could end up in a molecule as part of your brain.’
‘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.'” – Conversation between Stewart and Ashley about the nature of molecules from We Are All Made of Molecules by Susin Nielsen, page 120
“Ashley came into the kitchen a few minutes later and grabbed a banana. She glanced over at the table. ‘You made him bacon and eggs for breakfast?’ she said to Caroline. ‘You never make me eggs during the week!’
‘Stewart’s mom died two years ago today.’
Ashley opened her mouth. Then she closed it again. Then she opened it. Then she closed it. She turned to leave the room. Then she turned back and grabbed me from behind, like she was about to give me the Heimlich maneuver.
It was only after she’d left that I realized it was her version of a hug.” – Stewart from We Are All Made of Molecules by Susin Nielsen, page 157
“Still, I can’t believe Ashley managed to put some of the power back into the hands of the little people. That Ashley wound up being a force for change. I told her another one of my favourite Einstein quotes: ‘The world is a dangerous place to live, not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.’
She just looked at me and said, ‘How that man went out in public with that hair is beyond me.'” – Conversation between Stewart and Ashley from We Are All Made of Molecules by Susin Nielsen, page 243-244