Review of the Day: Meanwhile by Jason Shiga
Quantum physics, parallel worlds, probability, entropy. Yes it’s all in a day’s work for your average everyday choose your own adventure book. Now just substitute the words “average” and “everyday” in that previous sentence for “extraordinary” and “twisted” and you’ve got yourself a pretty good description of Jason Shiga’s graphic title Meanwhile. Simple enough in its concept and art that a ten-year-old would feel confident picking it up, yet jam packed with an insane degree of whimsy and darkness, the book isn’t afraid to trust the brains, and the decisions, of its audience. Meanwhile is hoping that you’re gonna be a pretty smart cookie if you pick it up. Better not disappoint. There could be consequences to pay along the way if you aren’t, after all.
Jimmy walks into an ice cream shop. He makes his decision. Either Jimmy chooses vanilla or he chooses chocolate. From that decision, you see two Jimmys now. The vanilla Jimmy storyline suddenly develops a line that you must follow to a tab. Open the book to that tab and you see the result of his decision. Follow the line and tab that connect to the other ice cream flavor, and suddenly you’re plunged into an intense storyline. Jimmy meets and befriends a local inventor who has come up with three objects. There’s the time machine, the SQUID which can transfer memories, and the appropriately named Killitron that can either kill everyone in the world not inside of it or make delicious ice cream. Jimmy decides which of the three to play with and along the way discovers a horrific story behind not just the inventor’s life, but his own as well.
There are plenty of impressive blurbs on the back of the book to ogle. There’s one from Scott McCloud and one from Gene Luen Yang. Fine cartoonists, the both of them. However, I was delighted to find that those quotes were paired with blurbs from two authors that I read consistently and without cease as a child. R.A. Montgomery and Edward Packard are two of the writers behind those old Choose Your Own Adventure books of my youth. The books were notable, not just because they created a fun new format and way of reading children’s literature, but also because they weren’t afraid to kill the reader in a variety of grizzly ways. Usually the books were written in the second person, telling “you” exactly what “you” were up to and allowing “you” to either make the right choices or the ones destined to lead to your own mangled corpse. I appreciated that as a kid. Made the stories a little more serious for me. There was a darkness to them. A darkness that is perfectly replicated in Shiga’s own book. I mean talk about a story that is not afraid to kill off its main character or, for that matter, every last human being on the planet.
Let’s put everything into context here. The book is written by a guy who graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with a degree in pure mathematics. On the publication page you’ll find a note that explains how the book was worked out. There were some difficulties coming up with the outline for the story. However, “With the use of a V-opt heuristic algorithm running for 12 hours on an SGI machine, the solution was finally cracked in the spring of 2000.” The book would be completed a year and a half later. If your eyes started to glaze over while reading that, you’re not alone. What I love about this, though, is that what you have here is a true children’s book making use of math. Do you know how hard it is to find such books? Recently the only other math-minded text I’ve seen for kids was The Unknowns: A Mystery by Benedict Carey. Also, I should note, an Abrams publication. Abrams likes it some math, apparently. In any case, a love of letters rather than numbers isn’t an impediment to enjoying this book. But for those with a penchant for figures, the byline on the cover that reads, “Pick any path. 3,856 story possibilities,” will prove especially tantalizing.
Then there’s the quantum physics, parallel worlds, probability, and entropy I alluded to earlier. All these concepts are here. I wouldn’t use Meanwhile as a lesson plan necessarily, though in the hands of the right teacher I think a lot of these concepts could be taught quite painlessly. Shiga’s story works in tandem with its format. The theory that every choice we make splits off into a universe where we did one thing and a world where we did the opposite has never been brought to life as brilliantly as it is here. I loved the Choose Your Own Adventure format, but there wasn’t a book amongst them that questioned the very nature of choosing and choices like Shiga does. This guy’s gonna blow a few minds.
About those 3,856 story possibilities . . . I think that technically that number is correct. However, for much of that time you’re going to find yourself traveling in circles. Circles that become increasingly frustrating as you continue to whirl through them. You can get out with concentration, but I wonder how many folks will be willing to do that after reading the same lines for the 30th time. Eventually readers will just start reading the book straight through out of sheer frustration, and even for that move Shiga has prepared accordingly. There is one two-page spread of Jimmy riding a giant squid. If you look closely at it, you’ll realize that these are the only two pages in the book without tabs to lead you there. The only way to even find it is to cheat. Pretty sneaky, Shiga.
There is one significant difference between this book and an old Choose Your Own Adventure novel. With CYOA, the reader would constantly leave their fingers stuck in the book to go back to previous turning points so that if they made the wrong decision they wouldn’t have to begin at square one all over again. Meanwhile makes this second guessing technique impossible. It’s not just the colored tabs. It’s the fact that a storyline will sometimes go to a page and then zip through it to yet another tab, leaving the reader utterly baffled if they try to backtrack. There is no backtracking in this book, you see. All decisions are final. For good or for ill.
Admittedly, not everything works here. There’s a whole “populating the earth” storyline that I won’t go into here that doesn’t make a lick of sense. There are some interesting takes on time travel that sort of play fast and loose with the rules. And, as I said before, there’s the frustration you feel when you get caught in a circle and feel like you can’t get out.
That said, this is also one of the bravest books I’ve read, marketed to small fry. It’s not afraid to make them think. How do our choices affect our lives? In this book you can make Jimmy physically go one way or another and see how things could have changed had he made a different decision. And from there, it’s a small step to thinking about your own life and the choices you face in your own everyday experiences. It may be a choice as mundane as choosing chocolate or vanilla ice cream, but for something so basic it’s fascinating to look at how even the smallest decision can affect the rest of your life. That’s a tall order for such a slim book. It is, without a doubt, one of the most original titles I’ve ever encountered.
On shelves now.
Source: Hardcover copy received from publisher.
- 100 Scope Notes
- Pink Me
- Four Realities
- Indie Pulp
- GutterGeek 2.0
- du9 – L’autre Bande Dessinee
- Reading, Watching, Playing
- Piling on the Books
- 13 Minutes
- Kids Lit
- The book was originally an interactive webcomic. Here’s a review of it in that format and one about it in its rough state.
- Chad Beckerman tells us what we want to know about the evolution of the Meanwhile cover.
- Great background information is available on the book thanks to Comic Book Resources. I like Shiga’s line on how to find a happy ending.
- There’s some info on Shiga at TIME Magazine.
- And more at Forbidden Planet International.
- And even more at SF Gate.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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