Review of the Day: The Probability of Everything by Sarah Everett
Never underestimate the power of a catchy title. It was on the Publisher’s Weekly blog “Shelf Talker” that I saw the title “When the spoiler is the hook.” In the post, bookseller Kenny Brechner writes, “Handselling a book whose reading experience would be materially diminished by spoilers can be a particularly difficult challenge for a bookseller if the book’s intrinsic strength is related to elements that would be inconsiderate to broach. For example you might ask why reading Sarah Everett’s The Probability of Everything brought up for me the topic of circumventing damaging spoilers, and all I could morally say was that it is an amazing book and you should read it yourself straightway and find out.” For me, that was all I needed to hear. I’d not heard anything about the title at that point, so I picked up my own copy and gave it a go. The first line is, “Dear Reader, If you are reading this then chances are that our world has ended.” The second line is, “I don’t know what that makes you.” And while I’m generally a pretty slow reader, I devoured this baby immediately. How could I not? Sarah Everett wrestles with an outsized and ambitious bit of plotting, all the while keeping her cards close to her chest. Here’s some advice: Hand this to kids that like their books with a bit of a twist. And do NOT skip to the ending and read that first. You will live to regret it if you do.
“We first noticed the asteroid because my little sister, Lo, kept trying to eat it.” The asteroid, in question, is AMPLUS-68 and on that day math-loving Kemi learns that it has an 84.7 percent chance of hitting us. What do you do when everything you’ve ever known in your life is bound to change? In the case of Kemi’s family, they immediately go to her Aunt Miriam’s house where the whole family is going to bear down for the next few days. While there, Kemi decides that she has to do something. Something to make sure her family is never forgotten. The answer seems simple: make a time capsule. But while everyone else in her family knows what to put in, her father’s contribution remains a mystery. And as AMPLUS grows closer and closer, Kemi is uncertain whether or not she’ll have time to get everything ready before it all turns into something else.
The other night I finished reading my son Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me for the very first time. And like this book, that’s a title that could severely limit a reader’s enjoyment if you told them what the book was really about. Yet by not telling them, how would they know how good it is? The advantage of The Probability of Everything is that the ostensible plot itself really is interesting. There is an asteroid headed to Earth and everyone has only a few weeks to live. What kid could resist that? Of course, I’m a children’s librarian by training, so my brain is inclined to make connections whenever I read a new work. Reading this book I did feel hints of the aforementioned When You Reach Me but you know what I kept thinking of time and again? It’s the End of the World and I’m In My Bathing Suit by Justin A. Reynolds. Like that book, it’s got a Black cast and a post-apocalyptic bent. Like that book, most of the story takes place in a small suburb, while whatever action may or may not be happening is happening elsewhere. And honestly? Like this story, that one leans hard into its mundanity. Our hero may or may not be in the midst of a breakdown of civil society, but the only thing he can think about is laundry. Here our heroine, Kemi, is all about creating a time capsule. It’s a familiar idea with results that are anything but familiar.
Okay, I feel like I’m going to have to start spoiling some stuff so if you like surprises you can just skip the rest of this review until the last paragraph.
My big question is whether or not a kid reader who picks up this book is going to see its twist coming. The tag line on the cover is just “Life has an unimaginable impact” which is cute and a little on the nose, but that’s okay. Reading the flap copy/description of the book is the true test. Did you know that authors don’t write their own flap copy? Nope! So it’s a bit of a testament to whatever editor came up with the description for this book. Here’s my favorite part: “And Amplus-68 is taking over her life, but others are still going to school and eating at their favorite diner like nothing has changed. Is Kemi the only one who feels like the world is ending?” I mean, well done. WELL done! Somehow that description manages to simultaneously give nothing away and, remarkably, it may also satisfy those kids that get to the twist and start hunting for the clues they missed earlier. Not an easy feat.
I’m no kid, so the book had me pretty fooled. Even after I’d read that article called “When the spoiler is the hook” and knew that there might be some kind of twist, I was still sucked into Everett’s storytelling. Then I skipped to the end. I know! I never do that! But I wanted to see if I could figure it out just by reading the ending and . . . kinda? But not really. Honestly, you will not see what’s going on until you get to the end of Part One. I mean, maybe you will. I certainly didn’t. Not even with its pretty evident Sixth Sense references in there. You also would have thought I’d have noticed the inconsistencies in the story. But see, I didn’t know Sarah Everett as an author. This is the first book of hers I’d ever encountered. For all I knew, she was the kind of writer who specialized in writing stories with inconsistencies (an asteroid is coming and people are still sending their kids to school?). Until now Ms. Everett had only ever written YA novels, and I don’t truck with YA generally. I didn’t know if I could trust her. Fortunately, child readers are savvy but also more trusting than old fogies like me. They’ll be so sucked into the plot of this book that when the twist comes they won’t know what hit them.
When I was a kid, I avoided sad novels for kids like the plague. You couldn’t get a copy of Bridge to Terabithia anywhere near me, and that’s the truth. And though I refuse to read reviews of books much before I read the titles themselves, somehow or other I knew that this was going to be a “sad” book. And it’s true. It’s a grief novel, showing various people grieving in a variety of different ways. But since the central reason for that grief is hidden to you for most of the book, it actually doesn’t feel as sad as it might. I mean, the central conceit, for quite some time, is that an asteroid is going to hit the Earth and kill everyone. That’s just such a huge idea, impossible to wrap your head around, that it cushions you from sadness. It’s only in Part Two of the book that the real emotional heavyweight material comes into play. So, for the most part, I wouldn’t be so quick to label this book as a sad bit of fiction. A better sell would be to those kids into science fiction, those into twists, and those that are subtly better readers than their peers. The trick is in engaging them without giving everything away. Good luck with all that.
Oh! Can I nerd out for a moment about the sheer amounts of math in this book, by the way? That title The Probability of Everything isn’t playing around. I’ve read my fair share of “math”-related books for kids in my day and most of the time a book will profess to love math while, in actuality, the author is scared to death of the subject. So they’ll do some cursory mention of fractions or equations then bolt back to the plotline like their life depended on it. Not Everett. Kemi loves probability and it’s not some fly-by-night obsession. She legitimately thinks it’s the bee’s knees. As a result, the author cleverly finds all kinds of ways to work it into the story. Not that the eloquence of the writing is entirely tied up in statistics.
In this book the author has the singular disadvantage of having to introduce a large cast in a relatively small amount of time. Finding a way to distinguish one personality from another can be tricky. Still, Ms. Everett occasionally goes above and beyond the call of duty with her descriptions. Here’s one of Kemi’s Grandma. “…Grandma put her love into things she made, like knitted sweaters, rag dolls, food. It was almost like she thought love should be useful. It should keep you warm or play with you or make you less hungry.” I just love that sentiment. And I love Kemi’s own thoughts about life changing. “Maybe, I thought, what was scary about knowing when you were going to die was knowing the exact moment you would stop mattering.”
This is the part of the review when I offer a couple constructive criticisms. Generally speaking, I’ve few to offer. I often say that I like books that take big swings and The Probability of Everything is nothing but swingy. I also appreciate a little weirdness in my books for kids and, again, this title provides. I was less enthused with some of the more treacly portions in the text. They aren’t constantly coming up, but when they do they take you out of the reading. For example, in a section called “THINGS YOU CAN PUT IN A TIME CAPSULE”, ostensibly written by Kemi, most of the suggestions are a lot of fun. Then we get to this one: “Letters that remind you love is specially picked words and inky promises.” Nope. Suddenly the hand of the author has cast a shadow over the text and made it impossible to see the character anymore. Has any kid, in the history of the universe, ever written something like that? I get that she wanted to end on an emotional note, but this was not the way. That said, I place the blame for this one on the editor rather than the author. It would have been an easy catch. It takes two to tango, after all.
When my daughter was still quite young, I noticed that she used extensive storytelling about her future life to deal with the uncertainty of the present. It was important to her to have a plan from the get go (even if that plan was to drive a garbage truck in the morning and a school bus in the afternoon, but you get the idea). In The Probability of Everything Kemi finds her own way of dealing with uncertainty. “Based on the past, based on math, the chances that everything would be okay were way more than the chances that things could go wrong.” Of course, things do go wrong, very wrong, for Kemi and the chances of that wrong thing happening were very low. Still, she never gives up her faith in math, or (at least) math’s ability to see her through the tougher moments in her life. So while this is truly a book about grief and dealing with unexpected sorry, the fact that the main character models methods of dealing with that pain is a marvelous thing. The fact that she does it with math? Even better. And the fact that this book is available to kids everywhere, luring in science fiction nerds as well as those kids into realistic fiction? Let’s just say that if you were a fourth or fifth grade teacher and needed a new book to read to a class, I couldn’t think of a better contender than The Probability of Everything. The spoiler may be the hook but kids will be hooked regardless of what they already know about it. A strange, smart winner.
On shelves June 27th.
Source: Publisher sent galley for review.
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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