#IntlYALitMonth: Pet

Pet, by Akwaeke Emezi


For in Lucille, life is sweet and soft. It has been since the revolution, when the angels disentangled the monsters from society’s fabric and wove it back together, stronger. There are no monsters left. Jam has known this always, as have all the children blossoming in the utopic town named for light. 

But then, a terrifying creature emerges from a canvas painted by Jam’s own mother. It wears her mother’s severed hands on its feathered body, and holds a drop of Jam’s blood in its chest. A monster, Jam logically assumes, because it is so frightening. But she is mistaken. This creature has been summoned to hunt a monster. And it says to call it “Pet.”

Readers will quickly realize that Pet deals heavily in metaphors. Lucille’s angels and monsters, concepts easily recognizable as being separate from the world of humans, are actually just that – humans whose best or worst acts have been  inflated to the point that they are described as something beyond human, something other. Nestled in the heart of this morality spectrum are the people of Lucille, who now enjoy the safety and fulfillment once withheld from them by the monsters. Protagonist Jam is their perfect representative, a Black trans girl who communicates mainly using a signed language. She knows that those who shared her identities were once persecuted, but that is part of a past she’ll never know. The oppressive monsters, who at one time could be found just about everywhere, were removed by the angels, everyday citizens who stepped up to do “unpleasant things…for unpleasant purposes out of unpleasant necessity.” These angels are commonplace enough that Jam’s best friend, Redemption, has an angel for an uncle. It’s no mystery what an angel looks like. But in a world supposedly devoid of monsters, how could Jam recognize a monster if she saw one? 

This is the question she finds herself asking when she agrees, reluctantly, to hunt the supposed monster alongside Pet. Her cooperation is motivated only by Pet’s insistence that the monster is in Redemption’s house, and her best friend could be in danger. Jam finds that she must hunt discreetly, because no one will believe that a monster could really be lurking in Lucille. Not even Jam’s mother, who painted the monster hunter into existence. As everyone around her looks the other way in willful ignorance, Jam discovers that society’s “angels” and “monsters” are just as complexly, fallibly human as everyone else. She must also face the painful truth that the monsters were never gone, not fully, not really. They just learned to hide. 

Pet portrays a reformed society so deep in denial about its potential weaknesses that it endangers the very progress for which its creators revolted. The abuse brought on by the hidden monsters feels too ugly, too awful to behold. As Lucille teeters dangerously on the cliffedge of justice, Emezi offers insight into questions that we often fail to ask, and certainly haven’t answered. How can an issue be resolved if we are too fearful to acknowledge it? Can a person who has done wrong be successfully rehabilitated? What could a healed society look like, and how can we get there? Once we’re there, can we finally let our guard down? 

As readers grapple with these questions, they will be enchanted by Emezi’s stylistic choices in this vibrant YA debut. Jam communicates using signs, spoken words, and a telepathic connection with Pet throughout the book. Each of these communication avenues are formatted differently in the text, giving readers a seamless reading experience. Additionally, the characters speak with a variety of dialects from across the African diaspora (this is also very well executed in the audiobook). The result is a story that leaps off the page and paints a vivid picture in the mind of the reader. 

I found the beginning of Pet somewhat slow-paced, as Emezi provides a fair amount of background information and word building before diving into the story. I also wished at times that the story was told from Jam’s perspective, rather than in the third person, to gain a deeper understanding of her changing worldview and subsequent emotional experience throughout the narrative. While these two factors dampened my experience a bit, I was completely enraptured once the story picked up. I may or may not have been pumping my fist in the car while listening to the epic ending of the audiobook. 

While immersed in Pet, readers will find themselves mourning, raging, and ultimately, hoping. There are paths to overcome the seemingly insurmountable struggles we face. Emezi lays those options out for us to examine. The way forward to Emezi’s utopia would indeed require a revolution, a terrifying reckoning of justice. But if we are ever to reach it we can’t look away, can’t pretend our realities aren’t real. And if we make it there, we can’t forget. Forgetting is how the monsters come back. 

About the Author 

Akwaeke Emezi (b. 1987) is a multidisciplinary artist and writer based in liminal spaces. Emezi’s art practice is deeply rooted in the metaphysics of Black spirit, using the lens of indigenous ontologies to focus on embodiment, ritual, and rememory. Visit their website for more biographical information, interviews, music, short films, and beyond. 

Reviewer: Pearl Bass (they/them/theirs)

Pearl is a youth-focused librarian with the Denver Public Library who made their way to Colorado after adventures in California, Pennsylvania, Germany, Austria and Japan. Pearl is passionate about practicing children’s librarianship as an openly queer professional and integrating social equity efforts into every aspect of their work. If you encounter Pearl, they will most likely be reading middle grade fiction, baking cookies for their wife, or battling the shedding of two dogs and two cats with a super-strength lint roller. 

JULIA E. TORRES is a nationally recognized veteran language arts teacher, librarian, and teen programs administrator in Denver, Colorado. Julia facilitates teacher development workshops rooted in the areas of anti-racist education, equity and access in literacy and librarianship, and education as a practice of liberation. Julia’s work has been featured on NPR, AlJazeera’s The Stream, PBS Education, KQED’s MindShift, Rethinking Schools, Learning for Justice Magazine, School Library Journal, American Libraries Magazine, and many more. She is a Book Love Foundation board member, Educolor Working Group member, a Book Ambassador for The Educator Collaborative, and a co-founder of #DisruptTexts. Her co-authored title Liven Up Your Library: Design Engaging and Inclusive Programs for Teens and Tweens is just the first of many forthcoming publications for librarians and educators. Learn more about Julia on her website juliaetorres.com or on social media @juliaerin80

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