The Adoration of Jenna Fox: Suspense, Sci-Fi & Family Drama for YA Readers

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The cover of Mary E. Pearson's new novel, The Adoration of Jenna Fox, bears an image of a butterfly -- a deep blue one with slightly damaged wings. It's an image that holds special meaning for Pearson, who told BTW in a recent interview, "I like looking at it -- and I love the serendipity of it all."

After the cover had been designed by her publisher, Henry Holt Books for Young Readers, a naturalist-friend asked Pearson if she knew a few important details about the butterfly: it's a female monarch (in nature, they are orange and black), and its tattered wings indicate the butterfly is a survivor that has traveled a long way.

Mary E. Pearson

"It's so perfect," Pearson said. And once readers open the book and enter the world of 17-year-old Jenna and her family, they'll agree that the book's cover image hints at the characters and stories inside.

Like the butterfly, Jenna is a survivor -- although at first she doesn't realize the extent of her resilience. As the story begins, we learn that it's some time in the near future, and Jenna has just awakened from an 18-month coma. Jenna knows that she was in a terrible car accident, and that her memories have fallen casualty to the traumatizing event.

What she doesn't understand, though, is why her family moved to California when her father's work is still in Boston. She wonders why her Boston friends aren't keeping in touch -- and why there is a layer of edginess under her parents' loving words.

Also strange: why does her grandmother, Lily, seem angry and uncomfortable around her, even as she urges Jenna to watch the stack of home videos from Jenna's childhood? And why can she recite all sorts of historical facts and long passages from Walden, but can't seem to remember actually learning them?

Jenna slowly begins to accept that something is amiss, that her parents aren't just treating her so delicately because of the accident -- there's something deeper and far more complicated going on. She begins to demand answers about her strange memory-gaps, her family dynamics, even her body.

Pearson has skillfully constructed a suspenseful, surprising story, and Jenna's path from uncomfortable suspicion to horrified comprehension is one of the true, albeit discomfiting, delights of reading The Adoration of Jenna Fox.

The author said the idea for the book -- which, in addition to its exploration of family, friendship, and growing up, raises questions about ethics in medicine and science -- came about during a trying time in her own life. In 2000, her youngest daughter was diagnosed with cancer. "We very quickly found out ... she had a cancer that was curable. I was so grateful that we lived in the time we did, and where we did, because 50 years earlier she would've died from this illness."

As her daughter went through treatment, Pearson found herself exploring questions that would fuel the story of Jenna Fox: "Where would we be 50 years from now? And how far would parents go to save their children?"

Pearson said that her youngest daughter is "perfectly fine and healthy now." So, too, is her older daughter -- who was diagnosed with the same cancer when she was three-quarters finished with Jenna Fox.

She said, "I thought, 'I really can't write this anymore,' but my second daughter nagged me to finish it.... The experience helped me have even more empathy with Claire [Jenna's mother], and Lily, and Jenna's father."

That insight into, and identification with, the adult characters makes Jenna Fox different from many novels labeled "young adult": while the book is driven by Jenna's point of view, and moves along to the rhythm of her growing awareness, the adult characters are highly detailed and have a strong presence in their own right. They're not just foils for the teen protagonist. Jenna's parents make decisions that anger and disgust Jenna, with good reason -- but their choices aren't completely unfathomable, either.

There's a science-fiction aspect to the book, too: Pearson said she did extensive research into medical technology, the workings of the brain, and numerous other medical, scientific, and technological subjects. "I started trying to think of technology that might exist in the future.... It was so strange: as I was doing the research, so often, I would hear about something I was imagining. I could've researched forever ... it was just really fascinating," she said.

Pearson said she found her research into ethics similarly compelling. "The ethical aspects are more of a personal thing -- everyone brings their own personal ideas to it." For example, percentages become key to the Jenna Fox storyline and, as Pearson said, "Numbers seem like such an arbitrary thing.... We have guidelines, but who gets to decide them?"

She added, "I did some research on reactions when heart transplants first came about. There was an uproar -- people weren't sure where the soul lies, and we've always thought of it as in our hearts. The obvious factions said, it's not right. But now, we don't even blink an eye, and it's [regarded as] a blessing. If we can change how we think in that way, perhaps we can come around about other [medical advances], too."

Although science, medicine, and technology are central to the story (and to Jenna's life), the author said she hasn't read a lot of science fiction, and wasn't thinking about The Adoration of Jenna Fox in that way. "I didn't realize it was science fiction, to be honest, until I first got feedback and reviews. I considered it more of a near-future family drama about relationships.... I don't really care where it's shelved as long as people read it!"

Pearson will be touring in support of that goal: she'll be embarking on a pre-publication tour in April, with more stops in May. She'll also be at BookExpo America and the American Library Association conference, both in June. "My publisher is keeping me out and about and busy, meeting with booksellers. I couldn't be happier."

There is another book, the author's fifth, on the horizon as well -- another young adult title, due out from Holt in 2009. And The Adoration of Jenna Fox has been optioned by 20th Century Fox. Pearson said, "I'm so excited!" but couldn't reveal much more, because contracts are still in negotiation. However, those readers who like to watch book-based movies can entertain themselves in the interim: The Adoration of Jenna Fox website offers an eerie, compelling book-trailer. -- Linda M. Castellitto