- Alcohol and Drugs: a parental character is depicted as an off-screen “stoner” (frequent user of marijuana/weed), multiple scenes of alcohol consumption by underage teens (ages 17-18)
- Homophobia: depicted casually through negative comments from family members and non-violent bullying from peers
- Family Relationship: questionable/unhealthy parent-child relationship between the protagonist and overbearing mother, perceived favoritism of one sibling over another, lack of familial support
- Sexual Content: little to no graphic sexual imagery, pressure of one partner to pursue sexual acts (though they are not enacted)
Ask the Passengers by A.S. King is a story of maternal conflict, Grecian philosophy, and finding yourself, but primarily it’s a story about love and its complexities. Astrid Jones, the protagonist, is a big city girl stuck in a small town with even smaller minds. She’s gay—or pretty sure she is—but still wants some time to figure that out. Dodging questions from her two gay best friends and the girl she might be falling for, Astrid struggles to find a place to unload the weight of her complicated emotions. In place of a diary she sends her feelings into the sky, more specifically, to the planes that fly over her backyard. Her uncontainable love takes root in the hearts of the passengers, with small scenes of their struggles, fears, and hopes for the future inter-cut between Astrid’s own story.
She has dreams of becoming an editor in New York, but has to survive her war zone of a household before she can get there. Her uptight, workaholic of a mother swings from ignoring her to berating her, and her father has been distant since discovering the world of marijuana. Even the imaginary friend she’s created based on her vision of the philosopher Socrates does nothing but judge her and offer harsh but needed advice. With the help of “Frank Socrates” and the planes soaring above, full of her love letters, Astrid finds pieces of herself in those around her and shapes her path for the future.
Astrid, herself, is an easy character to identify with for me, personally, and I feel like her struggle is fairly common for all members of the LGBT community. Just because her friends are gay and comfortable with their identities (albeit not “out”), it doesn’t necessarily mean she’s ready to open up to them about her questioning, and I think that’s important to show that. Discovering your identity and finding a label for yourself isn’t as straight a path as one might think (pun definitely intended), and that being a visible part of (but not necessarily the main conflict of) the story is a cool and refreshing take.
A lot of the conflict and tension within Ask the Passengers centers around Astrid’s home life, which, at first glance, isn’t “bad” by any means. She has two parents in a fairly stable relationship, and although her dad does struggle with unemployment, the family doesn’t seem to have any trouble staying afloat, finance-wise. She and her sister don’t get along and are in a constant fight for their parents’ attention, but what sibling-relationship doesn’t have those moments? And besides, there’s a few heart-warming scenes between the two that make up for that. Still, though, Cameron struggles with the great expectations her mother has for her, and the obvious bias she has for her sister. That, paired with her retreating father and homophobic sister make Astrid’s home a toxic place, and one that she spends a majority of the book trying to escape. A lot of teens will find comfort in this—knowing that even though a home might not be “as bad as it could” doesn’t mean it’s a place that fosters growth or understanding, and it’s okay to need a break. I think King balances the family dynamic well, having every member of the family work as an obstacle of Astrid’s, but also overall being a supportive, somewhat-functional unit.
One thing that wasn’t that appealing to me in this novel was Astrid’s romantic interest, Dee, or more specifically, Astrid’s relationship with her. Though Astrid is attracted to Dee and wants to be with her, she’s made uncomfortable frequently by Dee’s PG-13 advances, and I don’t think it was necessary for her to come on so strongly. While it does add more depth to Astrid’s self-exploration journey, it does fall into the trap of assuming all someone wants from a relationship is sex, and might lead some readers to hesitate pursuing a same-gender relationship because of that misconception. I can see where King was going with the arc, but I have to admit it falls a bit flat for me, personally.
Overall, I think Ask the Passengers is a nice book, but not a life-changing must-read. I enjoyed the book, and connected with the protagonist and her plights, but nothing about the book makes it stand out from other YA lit, except for the fact that Astrid is queer. The style was clean and the narrative easy to follow, but it wasn’t very unique. Still, though, given the relative lack of books for young wlw (women-loving-women), I do think it’s worth reading, particularly for the high-school age range.
Nyla Linn (She/Her)