M.K. Reed and Jonathan Hill's Americus (2011) is one of those lovely books about books - about fantasy books, in particular, and what they really mean. Often the conversation about the 'value' of fantasy gets side-tracked into one about escapism - which, yes, is an easily-grasped benefit of fantasy, but far from the only one. Moreover, to debate whether escapism has value is to ignore fantasy's worth as a mechanic for dealing with reality.
Fortunately, Americus goes for the hard stuff.
Fantasy - in this case, The Chronicles of Apathea Ravenchilde - is definitely escapist. Americus' protagonist, the teenage bookworm Neil Barton, values the series - a sort of Harry Potter clone - as a means of 'hiding' from the real world. But as the events of Americus unfold, he and the reader both learn that a good book is more than a shield.
But, boy, you can understand why he wanting it so much. Americus itself is an Everywhere, USA, the archetypical small town (the rest of the book is a lot more subtle than the title). Neil and his best friend Danny are just your 'normal' geeks - trying to get through life and hormones and the awkwardness of everyday existence. Which, as eighth-graders, can be pretty awkward indeed.
When Danny comes out as gay to his overbearing, Fundamentalist mother, she reacts unpredictably - rather than talking to Danny (or, better yet, listening to him), she boots him off to de-gaying school and sublimates her own frustrations into an attack on Danny's favourite books - the Apathea series. Neil, who is feeling a little 'left behind' (deliberate) in Americus suddenly caught up in the heart of a tiny storm. The town is forced to choose sides as Danny's mother, Nancy, tries to tear the books from the shelves.
Although things initially seem overwhelming, Neil learns that the books are more than a way out - they're also a means of connecting people. They unite the unusual team of misfits, but also more. Apathea and her struggles (brilliantly slotted into the rest of the narrative) are a metaphor for Neil's plight. But also Danny's. And also the librarian's. And also Danny's little sister. And the elderly library assistant. And the stressed councilwoman. And and and... everyone else's. Fantasy, as metaphor, draws people in, makes them empathetic, and brings them together - families, friends and strangers.
Nor, Americus notes, is Apathea the only thing with this magical property - music, for example, is also something that transcends difference. In one of Americus's best scenes, Neil bonds with a cousin's boyfriend - an older teen with a passion for punk music. Over the course of a few panels, they go from strangers to allies to friends, a transition fueled by finding a common interest: a shared passion.
Americus is a surprisingly hard-hitting book, with the charming illustrations and deliberately child-like presentation hiding a lot of meaty issues. I suspect it could be interpreted in a thousand different ways, with my own particular pro-fantasy agenda coming to the fore here. But a bit like Rainbow Rowell's Fangirl, I found Americus to be an exhilarating book about being a geek, being passionate about what you love, and a representation of fantasy not as running from life, but embracing it.