When I decide to spotlight a book, I usually like to pick a title that is relevant to an upcoming holiday or one that is in the news. But, in the case of Going Bovine by Libba Bray, I honestly just thought the cover was really neat and I stick by that decision. Libba Bray, who dreams of one day replacing her artificial eye with a laser-gun eye, views “comedy and tragedy [as] two sides of the same coin.” And her absurdist YA comedy is such a coin, asking deep questions about life, loyalty, disability, quantum mechanics, and reality itself. Going Bovine is crawling with awards, including the 2010 Michael L. Printz Award, and was named Publishers Weekly Best Children’s Book of the Year in 2009.
Cameron Smith is a burnout. His family doesn’t get along, he’s barely getting through High School, and his only hobbies are getting high and listening to music he hates. Being basically a hermit, the people in Cameron’s life try to convince him that he needs to get out more and actually experience the world for once. But before he can do so, he contracts Creutzfeldt–Jakob Disease, better known as Mad Cow Disease. Yup. Cameron is dying from a bad burger…bummer. The thing about Mad Cow Disease is that because it’s pretty much eating your brain, you will experience some buck wild and vivid hallucinations. So while Cameron is laid up and dying in the hospital, he is visited by a punk rock angel who informs him that he’s the only person who can save the world. With this knowledge, Cameron and his new friend Gonzo head out on this world-saving mission with the promise that Cameron’s cure waits at the end of it all. So that’s how a kid dying from Mad Cow and a 16-year-old anxious dwarf go out on an epic odyssey across America to save the world and themselves. Along the way, they meet jazz legends, cults, and a Norse god in the body of a garden gnome. Seriously. Well maybe. It could just be Cameron’s hallucinations, after all.
Like a modern-day Don Quixote, what’s so great about Going Bovine is that we, the audience, know that Cameron’s brain is dying, so we can’t trust anything he experiences to be real. But even so, Cameron is just an angsty teen who never really got a chance, but who was still able to go on this incredible life-changing journey all the same. Even though this book is unfailingly silly in nature, it asks the reader if reality makes a difference if you yourself are changed in the end. Sure it’s a meaningless adventure in the long run, but not while they are experiencing it. I know that sounds pretty heavy for a YA Book Club title, but sometimes you have to ask those big questions. Ask your group their thoughts on coincidences and reality. Do they see certain things as signs from the universe? Maybe to you, seeing a butterfly means a lost loved one is still around, or perhaps it’s a sign from a higher power. Does that being true or not change what it means to you? Is Cameron’s experience worth anything, even if it didn’t actually happen?
If you’re interested in requesting this book for your book club, you can find the Book Club Kit Request Form here. (Items must be requested by a librarian)
Bray, Libba. Going Bovine. Delacorte Press. 2009.