Kids of Appetite
By: David Arnold
Release Date: September 20, 2016
*Beware: Spoilers Ahead!*
Victor Venucci and Madeline Falco have a story to tell.
It begins with the death of Vic’s father.
It ends with the murder of Mad’s uncle.
The Hackensack Police Department would very much like to hear it.
But in order to tell their story, Vic and Mad must focus on all the chapters in between.
This is a story about:
1. A coded mission to scatter ashes across New Jersey.
2. The momentous nature of the Palisades in winter.
3. One dormant submarine.
4. Two songs about flowers.
5. Being cool in the traditional sense.
6. Sunsets & ice cream & orchards & graveyards.
7. A narrow escape from a war-torn country.
8. A story collector.
9. How to listen to someone who does not talk.
10. Falling in love with a painting.
11. Falling in love with a song.
12. Falling in love.
Every story has to start somewhere.
For Victor Venucci and Madeline Falco, the story starts with a death, and it…well, it ends with a death, too, one that the Hackensack Police Department are very interested in.
But there’s a lot more to their story.
There’s ice cream and tattoos and a large, friendly Russian man.
There’s a submarine, a vase full of ashes, and a mission.
There are people who need help, people who can’t smile, and people who live all together in a greenhouse because it’s the one place they feel safe.
There’s pain and joy and loss and love and friends and family and super racehorses.
And those things are the real story.
Before I officially begin my review, I want to say that I’ve had the pleasure of meeting David Arnold, the author of Kids of Appetite, on two separate occasions. The first was at a book signing for another author, and my introduction was a bit of an ambush on the part of the lovely but excitable bookseller that I’d been speaking with. Mr. Arnold was friendly nonetheless, and he seemed excited that I was buying his first novel, Mosquitoland.
Then again, I may have been the one excited after hearing such wonderful things about the book from said lovely but excitable bookseller. Whatever.
The second meeting was a bit more formal, at the last stop on Arnold’s tour for Kids of Appetite. Since we were in his hometown of Lexington, KY, approximately 90% of the people at the signing were his family and friends, and I felt quite out of place for being just a regular fan who lived close enough to come out on a random weeknight. I said as much to Mr. Arnold, and he smiled as he personally introduced himself to me and advised me to try the cake that had been decorated to match his book cover.
I’ve met a fair number of authors over the past few years, each of them wonderful in their own way, but my meetings with David Arnold stand out to me. He took the time to chat with me when he surely had more important people to talk to, and he seemed genuinely excited that I was excited to meet him. He was warm, funny, and unabashedly nerdy, and I admire not only his stories but his down-to-Earth attitude when it comes to meeting his readers. At that second meeting, I walked away feeling like maybe I wasn’t so out of place, and while I certainly wouldn’t expect Mr. Arnold to remember me if we meet again, I at least know that he’d warmly welcome my thoughts and questions and that he’d probably get a laugh out of the story of our first meeting.
I tell you this so that you know that David Arnold’s stories are just what you’d expect after meeting him. Yes, they’re complex, with plenty of tragedy and disasters, but they’re also inherently funny, nerdy, and utterly heartwarming. In Kids of Appetite, Arnold introduces us to a group of ragtag kids who live in a greenhouse. There’s a good reason for each of them to be there, and the story explores each character to explain what led them to the group. Each individual’s story is unique, but together they create a rich, complex narrative that will make you laugh, cry, and rethink your definition of family.
The Kids of Appetite are composed of Baz, Zuz, Mad, and Coco, the original group, and their newest addition, a boy named Vic. I liked that the book began with a list of all the characters we met in the book along with a few of their defining characteristics. This was helpful to keep everyone straight at first, but I was almost afraid it was creating boxes which these characters would be forced into, limiting their ability to feel like real people by defining them in such simple terms. And then I realized that the list was far from comprehensive and that the characters had much more muchness than the list would have you believe.
Which, duh, I should’ve known, because more than anything else, Arnold is fantastic at creating larger-than-life characters.
What I really loved, though, was that one of Vic’s biggest characteristics—the fact that he was Moebius Syndrome—is not mentioned. This tells us that Vic doesn’t let his condition define him, that there’s more to him as a person than his inability to blink or smile. The thing I loved about Vic was his ability to see everyone for who they truly were. That’s not always a good thing, since some people are truly terrible people, and it’s unfortunately something Vic has come by the hard way, since people seem to see his disability and react in their true character rather than in whatever way they’re wanting the world to see them. And it’s not a perfect ability, as we see with Vic’s mother’s boyfriend Frank, but for the most part, it’s a talent that steers Vic in the right direction.
It does, after all, tell him that first Mad and then Baz can be trusted. And then it doesn’t take long for Vic to figure out the group dynamics, both within the group itself and between the gang and the other Chapters, because he pays attention. Because of his condition, Vic is used to being on the fringes of most situations, thus putting him in the unique position of the silent observer, and after years of people-watching, he’s a bit of an expert at truly seeing people.
Seriously, how many sixteen year olds are better at patiently waiting and watching than at rushing in, mouth firing and attitude ablaze? Vic’s uniqueness stems from his disability in that his Moebius has forced him to adapt to the world differently than other kids his age, and Arnold does a wonderful job of portraying Vic as a person who has this terrible condition but who has a life and is a real person outside of it. To be honest, there were a number of instances where I forgot about Vic’s condition until he mentioned his Visine or his leaky mug; I simply related his behavior and his reactions to the sadness and stress of the last few years of his life, which would’ve been more than enough to cause a teenager to react a bit differently to things than other people. It’s a testament to Arnold’s skill that he was able to incorporate this rare disease into his book and make it such an important aspect yet still make it seem normal; Vic is his own character, and yes, he has Moebius, but that’s not all he is.
It certainly helps that the other kids quickly accept Vic and his problems after some initial questioning. Once Vic explains Moebius Syndrome to them, nothing more is said about it—they, too, see Vic as more than his condition, and they’re willing to help protect him from those who can’t. That alone was enough to make me love the other Kids, but they each had so much more to love about them. At first glance, the Kids look like a pretty stereotypical group of misfits: Mad is the smart, quirky love interest; Baz is the older brother and the one financially supporting everyone; Zuz is the quiet one whose approval is the true deciding factor of who is and who isn’t really part of the group; and Coco is the mouthy younger sister. And while these stereotypes aren’t wrong, like Vic, the Kids are really defined by other things.
Mad is fiercely loyal, to the point of letting herself be physically injured to take care of those she loves. She endures her uncle’s beatings because he gives her grandmother a place to stay, and Jamma is more important to Mad than her own well-being. And although she doesn’t take a beating for Vic, she does lie to the group of boys who are harassing him because she knows their words hurt Vic. Most people would be willing to do a lot for their loved ones, but not many teenage girls have to deal with burns and bruises like Mad does.
Baz really is the older brother of the group, but it’s a position gained because of his utter selflessness. As a boy, Baz and his family fled the civil war in the Republic of the Congo, and Baz never forgot the kindness his mother showed to their fellow refugees. She went above and beyond to do whatever she could to help others, and Baz emulates this; he helps people by helping them earn a second chance, asking for nothing in return other than permission to use their story in the book he’s writing. Despite all the loss and hard times he’s been through, Baz has chosen to dedicate his life to others, and in doing so, he’s earned the love and respect of those people the world would give up on.
Baz’s brother Zuz internalized the trauma of their escape quite differently. It’s not that he’s not willing to help people, it’s that he’s willing to do harm to help the people he deems worthy. Baz and Zuz lost both their parents as well as Zuz’s twin sister during their escape, and Zuz has essentially decided that since he failed to protect his first family, he’ll do whatever it takes to protect his second one. This turns out to be both bad and good: bad in that Zuz beats his foster father—Coco’s real father—into a coma for hitting Coco, but good because his lack of hesitation in going after Mad’s Uncle Lester with a quick one-two punch saves Vic’s life and probably Mad’s and Jamma’s as well. It’s a surprisingly dark twist for a guy who speaks through snaps and who puts up with all of Coco’s drama, but it fits his experiences and his absolute dedication to protecting his family.
And Coco—oh, Coco. Yes, she’s a mouthy eleven year old who demands ice cream and says whatever she wants, but she’s also smart and surprisingly optimistic for having lived through so much in her short life. And although she does basically say everything she’s thinking, she knows where to draw the line about the truly important stuff. She’s still not above some friendly teasing, but only she’s allowed to tease; everyone else better beware, because Coco’s from Queens and she’s not afraid to throw down.
As I said before, Arnold does a fantastic job of creating complicated and interesting characters, but he also does a great job of using those characters to demonstrate important themes. In Kids of Appetite, the characters really explore the themes of second chances and family. The Kids are together either because they’ve lost their real family or because they’ve been hurt by them, either physically or emotionally. The Kids have formed their own family, one of bond rather than blood, and in doing so, they’ve managed to find the love, trust, and safety that had been denied them before. It’s easy to see that the Kids truly care for one another the way a real family would, and they also tease and annoy each other like a real family. Coco pouts when they can’t afford ice cream, and Mad sneaks out to go visit her grandmother. Vic isn’t initially allowed to use Zuz’s nickname, and when he leaves his Visine in the gift shop bathroom, it almost gets the Kids kicked out of the greenhouse for trespassing in the main house. The Kids aren’t perfect, but they’re perfect for each other. They understand Zuz’s snaps, they try to keep Coco from cursing and picking up other bad habits, and they all go along with Baz’s Chapters.
The Chapters are where we see Baz’s belief in second chances. Chapters are people who Baz has helped in return for using their story as a chapter in his book, thus the name. It’s almost unbelievable to see what Baz is able to help people with; he’ll help anyone as long as they haven’t hurt anybody, and what he’s accomplished with the early Chapters is heartwarming. To see what one man can inspire others to do makes you believe that one person really could change the world. I did, though, think that the way Baz helped these Chapters was interesting. He doesn’t so much help the people themselves as he works to improve the overall situation, thus allowing the Chapter to make what they will of their second chance. All of the Chapters so far have made the best of it, but presumably, there could be some in the future who squander Baz’s gift.
And Baz would accept that; he’d still probably use them in his book, but he’s not out to force anyone to do anything. He’s there to offer help and let people make their own decisions. This is really seen when Baz suggests that Vic leave the group to complete his father’s list. He’s realized that Vic has stalled on his mission because he’s fallen in love with Mad, and although Baz isn’t trying to get rid of Vic, he wants the younger boy to complete the list and find closure. Baz doesn’t push, though, and although things get a little crazy before Vic can really make a decision on his own, it’s clear that Baz would’ve accepted Vic’s decision either way.
Regardless, Baz’s approach to second chances leads to the Chapters essentially becoming family—some more so than others—and I liked the way that they were willing and able to repay Baz’s kindness when he was in trouble and needed a second chance himself. That ‘what goes around comes around’ resolution of the story was actually quite complicated, but it was sweet to see the Chapters be able to help their dear friend.
It was also good to see a happy ending between Vic and his mother, Doris. Vic’s freak-out in response to Frank’s proposal was what pushed him over the edge in the first place, making him believe that Doris had forgotten about her first husband, Vic himself, and the family the three of them made together. The death of Vic’s father had driven a wedge between Vic and Doris, who had been quite close before, and Vic, seeing his mother’s engagement as the final betrayal of their once-happy family, latches onto the familiar bond he forms with the other Kids. Part of me wondered if Vic would ever go back home, but after hearing and seeing what became of the other Kids’ families and after inadvertently rediscovering the great love between his own parents as he scatters his father’s ashes, Vic realizes that his mother still loves him and his father. Yes, things have changed, but even if they move on, that doesn’t mean that they’ll forget the love and happiness they had before.
I also really liked Vic’s acceptance of Frank. Frank may still be a bit annoying, but Vic realizes that the man isn’t trying to replace his father and that he truly loves Doris. I think, too, that Vic finally realizes that Frank, having lost his own wife to cancer, understands the pain he’s feeling, making Frank uniquely qualified to help Vic and Doris continue to work through their loss. Klint and Kory are still probably going to be jerks, but at least Vic and Frank are able to come to an understanding in light of their devotion to Doris. And sometimes that’s the best you can ask for—a puzzle with holes where loved ones have been lost but new and sometimes odd connections with new pieces who want to help you be somewhat whole again.
And that’s really the best message of Kids of Appetite: that things won’t always be perfect, but there are always people who are willing to help and to be there for you. Whether it’s people like Baz who are willing to help you find a second chance, people like Mad and Zuz and Coco who are willing to accept your flaws and help you complete your mission no matter how strange it may be, or people like Frank who are able to empathize and willing to give you somebody to lean on as you learn to live again, Kids of Appetite shows that there is always goodness in the midst of all the world’s darkness. There is always something to smile about and someone to fall in love with, and sometimes that’s enough to change everything.
With its powerful messages, unique characters, and funny and heartwarming plot, Kids of Appetite is a guaranteed win for readers of all ages. I can’t thank David Arnold enough for once again creating a story and characters that simultaneously break my heart and inspire me. If you’re looking for a book to warm your heart as the winter cold approaches, look no further than Kids of Appetite. I promise, you’ll fraking love it.
Stray Thoughts and Observations:
- Coco’s obsession with ice cream is totally me.
- Norm is adorable, and I definitely need a big, cheery Russian friend like him.
- I agree, Vic; sideways hugs are weird.
- I like that Vic’s dad is described as a heart-thinker. I am definitely not a heart- thinker, but I really admire people who are. They’re the ones who really make this world a better place.
- I really like the scenes at the police station. They’re nice interludes between the main story, and they give us Mendes, who I actually really like.
- I totally think you can base a relationship off of literary preferences.
- Wow, that death scene was intense.
- I used to think love was bound by numbers: first kisses, second dances, infinite heartbreak. I used to think numbers outlasted the love itself, surviving in the dark corners of the demolished heart. I used to think love was heavy and hard. I don’t think those things any more.
- He said most people’s brains were pretty stupid, but hearts could cut through bullshit like an absolute ace.
- The Madifesto dictates: when the order of the cosmos sets the board, position yourself as Queen.
- Sideways hugs are such bullshit. Hug me or don’t. The indecisiveness is a real problem for me.
- “We are all part of the same story, each of us different chapters. We may not have the power to choose setting of plot, but we can choose what kind of character we want to be.
- “And when the kids needed someone most, someone to love and trust, they found one another, and they called themselves the Kids of Appetite, and they lived and they laughed and they saw that it was good.”
- Quiet observers tend to be loud thinkers.
- “He prefers dumping his girlfriends in the morning,” she said, shuffling cards by haphazardly spreading them out all across the table. “Baz says it’s impossible to yell over pancakes, says it’s scientifically proven…”
- The fact that the man’s name is Ron, that he has bright-red hair, and that his suit looks like it hasn’t been washed in weeks, is simply too much for my Hogwarts-loving brain to handle. “Let me guess,” I say to Ron. “You father is obsessed with plugs.”