September 14, 2016
He had me at teenagers and Bible Belt.
He sunk the hook with three individual characters, each with their alternating chapters that helped me get to know them. These three are unlikely friends in the unfriendly atmosphere of a small town high school, unlikely except for the fact that they are the outcasts.
Jeff Zentner’s debut young adult novel, The Serpent King, focuses on the senior year of Dill, a.k.a. Dillard Early, Jr, and his friends, Travis, a gentle soul, mostly content where he is, but who lives a great deal of his waking hours caught up in a fantasy book series, and Lydia, a fashion blogger with a quick wit, a smart mouth and a way out.
The undoing of any social standing Dill might have had began a few years earlier when his father, Dillard, Sr., a Pentecostal preacher with extreme practices, was sent to prison for other practices unbecoming a religious leader – or anyone. The sins of the father are projected onto Dill by many in the community, causing him despair on many levels, as he goes to school and works to help his mother deal with family debt. His only release is spending time with his close friends, particularly Lydia.
Lydia seems extremely out of place in this trifecta. She is exudes supreme confidence and intelligence. Because of her skill at putting together fashion ensembles from vintage pieces gathered from second-hand shops, as well as her personable writing, she has a successful blog with which she reaches hundreds of thousands of fans. Part of my mind questions how this could be, but the part of my mind that is enjoying the characters, shuts the other part down in a hurry so we can get on with the story. Suffice it to say that Lydia’s intact, normal family and its above average economic standing, paired with her successful blog and networking capabilities, mean that she is leaving for college soon – and not just a regional or state university. The girl has big, far-away plans and they are going to happen.
This makes Dill sad, thus, a few obstacles.
But Dill still has Travis, who has obstacles of his own, which we learn of through his own chapters. Dill and Lydia remain clueless about Travis’s issues for quite some time, because when Travis is with his friends, he’s happy. But Travis has dreams too. Who doesn’t?
Teen readers will connect with the characters and the plot on so many levels. There is something here for everyone: fantasy fiction, music, writing, religion, fashion, characters who feel real, situations all too familiar.
It’s like Zentner has been there.