By A.J. Betts
Available now from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt BFYR
Stories about kids with cancer are more my older sister's speed, but ZAC AND MIA has been racking up the awards and many people I trust have been talking up this Australian import. It won the 2012 Australian Text Prize, the 2014 Ethel Turner Prize, and the SCBWI Crystal Kite Award. Not too shabby.
Zac has leukemia and is in quarantine post-bone marrow transplant when Mia moves into the room that shares a wall with his. She has a leg tumor and a bad attitude. Zac, who has a fifty-five chance of his cancer coming back, can't believe Mia doesn't know how lucky she is. Mia can't believe she's missing out on her senior year of high school and losing her looks, which are the one thing she felt she had going for her.
ZAC AND MIA is told in alternating voices, but not in conventional manner. The first third is told by Zac, the second third shared, and the last third is told by Mia. I'm not entirely sure why the division is made the way it is. In some ways Zac's story is more interesting at the end, just as Mia's story is more interesting at the beginning in some ways. I did like the balance between them. Zac is, in many ways, the more appealing character. He's the fighter, obsessed with statistics of death but still upbeat. Mia is the more dynamic character. She can't see anything lucky in her situation at first, but she starts to learn the relativity of luck and the difficulties of loving relationships with people who are sick. I really enjoyed the quiet way she and her mother repaired their relationship.
The setting of ZAC AND MIA helped me approach it as more than just another cancer book. And no, I don't just mean Australia with its show bags. (I'm still only partially sure what those are despite several Australians explaining them to me.) Zac's quarantine in the beginning forces author A.J. Betts to be clever, conveying her protagonist's restlessness, frustration, and boredom while still finding a way to have him be at the center of interesting things despite his confinement. The second third takes place on his family's olive farm. It felt very lived in. The big city parts are more conventional and less memorable.
I don't think cancer narratives will ever really be for me. But I can see why ZAC AND MIA has been so well received. Betts avoids the maudlin and puts the friendship ahead of the romance. It's not entirely unconventional, but it is very well done. I look forward to reading other books by Betts that don't heavily involve cancer.