Shelving Books and Kissing Bees

Alison Morris -- June 26th, 2008

Is your decorating style more haphazard than orderly? If so, why not confine your literary clutter to the oddly-shaped chambers of the Opus Shelving System from Design Within Reach. (You decide whether or not the price is within reach too.) The unit is made from recycled expanded polypropylene, "the same material chosen for motorcycle helmets due to its light weight and durability." This means your Opus bookcase will withstand the elements if you want to use it outside. As for what such treatment will do to your books, though, that’s another matter…

While only a drunken bee would construct a hive this uneven, the honeycomb-like pattern of this bookcase nevertheless reminds of those fuzzy fliers and now also the young adult novel Kissing the Bee by Kathe Koja (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), which I finally read two weeks ago.

I wasn’t intending to read this book at the time. In fact what I was trying to do was weed my overgrown stack of galleys at home, to make room for all the incoming ones. When I got to Kissing the Bee and asked myself the "stay or go?" question, I decided to read the first few pages as a means of settling the debate. If I was drawn in by them, the book would maintain its in-the-pile position for a while longer (at least until I’m forced to weed again). If not? Donation City.

Of course you can guess what happened. I read the first few pages and in rapid fashion finished the entire book, which I thoroughly enjoyed and have thought about quite a bit in the days since. I love that its open-faced, honest tone makes for such compulsive reading, and I love the intriguing parallels it draws between the world of fiction and non.

The narrator of Kissing the Bee is a high school girl named Dana, who has been slowly awakening to the fact that her best friend Avra isn’t actually all that good to her or for her. As if that’s not difficult enough, the situation is further complicated by the fact that Dana is deeply in love with Avra’s boyfriend, Emil — the only person who seems truly in tune with Dana’s interests and emotions, the one soul who is truly paying attention.

While this complicated triangle is unfolding, Dana is working on a project for a science unit on "cooperative societies." As she explains it, "I was tired of human beings by that point, so I decided to do bees." Notes from her bee studies appear in italics throughout the novel, enabling the reader to make clear connections between the behavior of bees and the behavior of human beings. In Dana’s life, for example, Avra is very much the Queen Bee.

I absolutely loved all the bee bits in this book. Not only did they teach me a great deal about apiculture (a word that was new to me), they served as thought-provoking metaphors for what was happening the story, and dramatic ones too. Drama? With BEES? Yep. Here’s a taste (and a lesson) of what good old Mother Nature has to offer, as explained by the talented Kathe Koja:

The creation of a new queen is extremely important to the hive — without the queen, there will be no honey, no colony, nothing at all — so anywhere from two to twelve queen cells might be constructed. As the new queens are about to emerge, half the colony may leave with the old queen, massing and waiting on a nearby tree or bush while the scouts find a safe location. Then the swarm follows her to their new home.

At the old hive, as the first of the proto-queens, or "virgins," comes out of her cell, she makes a sharp high-pitched noise that the others, still in their cells, hear and answer with little cries of their own. She moves through the hive, looking for her sisters, tracking them by that noise, and kills every one of them, unless one of them kills her first. Sometimes all the virgins die from their battle injuries. But the battle is necessary. There can be only one queen in the hive.

This is a beautiful novel about relationships — not just the romantic type, but the friends-for-reasons-neither-entirely-understands type too. It would be a great choice for high school-aged girls who are growing up, moving on, and opting out of unfullfilling friendships (you know — the kind that sting).

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