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Celebrating Pet by Akwaeke Emezi

The monstrous creature that steps out of the painting looks so terrifying that Jam thinks that it must be evil. But, as the novel goes on, we get to know the ‘monster’ named Pet, and Pet goes on to ask: do we always know what evil looks like? Where and what are the modern day monsters? And perhaps more poignantly still: what happens when your parents won’t listen or see them? 

This important book takes a sidelong look at something horrific within a family and asks the grotesque questions that it would be so much easier to ignore. We witness the adults – or in this case Jam’s loving, otherwise supportive parents – operate ‘as a unit of two’ and shut down the conversation. And this is perhaps all the more surprising or painful because on other occasions they were wholly ready to listen – as, for example, when it came to her voicing her gender preference. 

Akwaeke writes with a hyperrealism and dazzle that sets the book apart from much of the YA genre. The narration is vibrant and immediate and refreshing. Raw and urgent in the way in which the truth must out – no matter how foul.  Imagery and overlapping sensations build up a complex picture of a hideous secret, something that the adults have previously witnessed but have let happen again. 

Without giving any spoilers, this is a vital issue, still prevalent, and one which we are proud to address. 

Akwaeke powerfully shows us what can happen when children find themselves forced to take matters into their own hands. But this is no Lord of the Flies – the children and the avenging creature, Pet, do what the adults should have done long ago and hold the perpetrators to account. The ‘monster’ stands by her, when the grownups don’t – ‘I will be here, little girl,’ he says ‘. . . no matter how long it takes.’ The evil is rooted out and exposed. 

If all this sounds horribly bleak, then it is further testament to Akwaeke’s genius that they manage to allude to the foulest of crimes in a way that is still appropriate for a YA reader. The novel abounds with hope and confidence and more encouragingly still a sense of empowerment and choice. Even though Jam is ‘but’ a child.

As a responsible children’s publisher, one of our aims is to join with others to empower children to feel that their voices and choices need to be heard and do count. That their preferences and dislikes are valid, no matter their age. This is why we partnered with the NSPCC to publish the critically acclaimed, confidence-building picture book I Like Bees, I Don’t Like Honey. Like Pet it is a book that believes that the fact of being a child does not negate a belief. It’s a book to help root out bullying, abuse and mental suffering. 

We know books provide enormous comfort and sustenance. We know they can inspire and galvanise.

But there’s another reason we are proud to publish a novel that sits at the sharp end of culture and debate. It is extremely unusual to find a YA novel that puts a transgender character at the forefront of the narration – indeed as chief protagonist – and even more unusual for this protagonist to feature in a novel that isn’t about transgender concerns. As Emezi said themselves in their recent New York Times interview, which praised the novel’s dialogue as between ‘a love letter to artists and the childlike imagination’:

 ‘When it comes to trans characters, especially black trans girls, black trans women, when they’re being amplified, it’s usually because someone died. Trans people are already living that reality. So I was like, if I’m writing something for black trans kids, what spell do I want to cast? I want to cast a spell where a black trans girl is never hurt. Her parents are completely supportive. Her community is completely supportive. She’s not in danger. She gets to have adventures with her best friend. And I hope that that’s a useful spell for young people. I hope that’s a spell where someone reads that and they’re like, this is what my life should be like. This is a possibility.

This aspect alone has brought a refreshing response from readers – and we are delighted that individuals who have never seen themselves included ‘just’ as human beings within a story before can do so now. 

We are thrilled with the response to Pet so far, with global reviews praising the novel as ‘a compelling, nuanced tale’ (Publisher’s Weekly) that ‘explodes the sky with its bold brilliance’ (Kirkus), written ‘in poetic language that sings and sparks’ (The Buffalo News), overall ‘a powerful and highly original YA debut’ (The Bookseller).

Pet constantly challenges the reader – with shades of meaning, and layers of plot, like paint upon the messy canvas from which the monster springs. Readers will make up their own minds as to what they do and don’t believe – but also, we hope, the novel will leave some questions still to ponder. The conversation isn’t shut down. Because it’s the building of your own critical faculties and the understanding that there is light and shade that allows you to grow into a fully rounded human being. 

– Leah Thaxton, Publisher