Young Adult Education Darkly Hilarious: ‘The Patterns of Paper Monsters' by Emma Rathbone Kerry Winfrey

I discovered Emma Rathbone (well, as much as you can discover a person, since she very likely existed before I ever read anything by her) when her piece “Haunted House-sitting” ran in the New Yorker. It’s seriously laugh out loud funny. Example: “Putting on a sheet and floating around in the dark isn’t Henry’s style. He’s pretty much always in his ratter-tatter Victorian tuxedo from the night of the tragedy. Although now and then he will experiment with some of my clothes. Like, the other day he put on a colorful sarong and then floated across the living room.” Are you laughing out loud right now? Don’t tell me if you’re not; I don’t want to be disappointed in you.

Naturally, when I found out Emma Rathbone wrote a book, I had to get my grubby little paws on it. And guess what? The Patterns of Paper Monsters was everything I hoped it would be. It’s dark, weird, upsetting and truly hilarious.

The Patterns of Paper Monsters is about Jacob Higgins, a 17 year old who’s stuck at a juvenile detention center because of an armed robbery that didn’t go according to plan. The juvenile detention center is hellish–the food is terrible, there’s absolutely no freedom and the adults are mostly super weird. This is how Jacob describes his therapist’s office: “Let me just put it this way: everything in her office is made out of denim or is denim-themed. The couch I sit on has a denim pillow with an actual pocket on it, like a jeans pocket, like it thinks it’s Bruce Springsteen or something.”

The only thing that breaks up the monotony of life at the JDC is Andrea, a girl who Jacob finds a way to connect with, despite all the restrictions and surveillance they’re under. But Jacob’s also dealing with some other problems. There’s his mom and her volatile relationship with the stepdad Jacob refers to as Refrigerator Man, and there’s fellow inmate David, who manages to be distressingly disturbed, even by juvenile detention center standards.

To be honest, though, it wasn’t the plot that made this book stand out to me so much as the voice. Emma Rathbone really nails a particular style that I can only describe as “Catcher In the Rye-esque,” which is to say that I really wish I’d been able to read this book in high school. She perfectly captures that high school feeling of knowing without a doubt that you understand something about the general suckiness of the world that other people haven’t yet figured out. It’s about feeling the heaviness of despair so acutely that you just cannot even be bothered to pretend that things are going to be okay. Jacob is continually frustrated by the adults in his life who refuse to completely give in to hopelessness, who mask it with work or family or religion or vague platitudes about personal growth. But for Jacob, all of that stuff is kind of bogus.

Well, now that I’ve made the book sound incredibly depressing, I also want to tell you that it’s really funny. I will warn you that if you’re into the books I normally recommend that involve a lot of kissing and romantic tension and grand emotional gestures, there’s a chance that you may not like this book. It’s dark, upsetting, sort of violent, and there is absolutely no kissing. But if you’re a fan of strange, funny coming-of-age stories like The Catcher in the Rye, The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Youth in Revolt, chances are you’ll love this one. Jacob Higgins is such a wonderfully complex character…he’s sharp, prickly and dangerous, but still overwhelmingly confused, sad and sweet. The Patterns of Paper Monsters burrowed its way into my heart, and I know I’ll be thinking about it for a long time.

SOME HIGHLIGHTS:

-Emma Rathbone is a great writer, you guys. Her descriptions are the kind that make you understand exactly what she’s talking about, even though you would never in a million years think to describe it that way. Take this description of a character: “He’s the kind of person who if you were standing in line and the checkout person messed up and was causing everyone to wait wouldn’t freak out or make a big deal out of it, or even shift and sigh loudly to convey his irritation. He would stand there and all of his internal machinations about the situation would be tempered by his belief that everyone is pretty much trying to do their best.”

-More fangirling about Emma Rathbone: she has another New Yorker piece, My Wedding Hair, that is pretty much perfect: “Definitely an up-do. Maybe like a kind of messy bun. I’m thinking—and stop me if this doesn’t make any sense—but a kind of homesteader vibe? Like a kind of ‘Little House on the Prairie,’ ‘I’m gonna stand my ground and don’t mess with me or my kin’ kind of deal? But, like, sexy. Like, it basically says, ‘I’ve got a ton of stuff to do, like shuck corn, and muck out a barn, but I’ve still managed to retain a femininity that glints in the most attractive and unexpected ways.’”

-You can find more from Emma Rathbone on her website.

What about you guys? Have you read The Patterns of Paper Monsters? Let me know in the comments! And, as always, I love to hear your suggestions for books to feature in Young Adult Education. Leave a comment, email me at youngadulteducation@gmail.com or find me on Twitter @KerryAnn.

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