Nicholas and Kristina
A Novel by S.J. Ziegler
2012 / 349 Pages
S.J. Ziegler’s debut novel Nicholas and Kristina introduces readers to two young adults who at first glance couldn’t be more different from one another, but over time realize that they have much more in common than they could have ever imagined. Ostracized by their peers for being “different” and labeled “troublesome” by their school psychologist, neither can seem to catch a break. As the odds continue to mount against them, the bond between the two only strengthens.
Kristina is an adopted epileptic child living a seemingly normal life in Brooklyn, New York. That is, until one day she has a seizure at school and finds herself politely expelled by an institution that can’t and won’t look beyond her medical condition. Her globe-trotting parents, who are barely around and pay little attention to what she wants or needs, decide that it’s in her best interest to move her into a special school for the gifted 6,500 miles across the world in Uzbekistan.
Nicholas has been home-schooled his entire life at a place called “The Farm” in New Mexico. His parents have sent him to The Central Asian School for the Gifted and Talented (CATGAS) so that he can become a well-rounded individual and develop the social skills that are necessary to survive in the vast world that lurks just outside of the walls of the isolated existence he’s lived in up to this point.
Unsurprisingly, when forced to immerse themselves headfirst in a new country, new cultures, a new school, and new way of life, both find it difficult to adjust. When Nicholas spots Kristina one day however, he can instantly tell that there’s something “special” about her and he almost immediately hatches a plan to befriend the girl. Of course doing so only leads to more high-profile ridicule from the children around them, who either don’t understand, or are jealous of the strong connection that the two share.
How could the pair know that becoming friendly with one another would only make things worse for them in the long run? As they continue to ignore the real world in favor of what seems to be a place and time of their own creation, they increasingly come under fire from the adults in their life who deem it necessary to label their behavior as being unproductive and disruptive to both their health and their education. It starts with the previously mentioned school counselor, a woman who seems to have an unhealthy obsession with doing everything in her power to separate the two, and then continues steadily down the line. From teachers, to parents, to guardians and beyond, there doesn’t seem to be a single adult that either can trust.
Ziegler’s novel does an amazingly effective job at digging around under the surface and exposing the nerve when it comes to describing what it’s like to be a child growing up in today’s fast-paced world. His subjects are raw and honest. Perhaps they’re a bit damaged, but who isn’t? The point is that we’re all a product of our unique experiences and that we should be embraced for our differences, not punished or meant to suffer because of them. He’s spot on in his attempts to capture the loneliness and powerlessness that goes along with youth, but he’s also equally as deft at accurately describing the corruption that occurs in adulthood and what happens when we become unable to relate to the difficulties that are inherent in youth. At 12 years of age, both Nicolas and Kristina find themselves caught somewhere between these two existences, struggling to understand how to let go of the childish responses and defense mechanisms they possess as weapons of survival without compromising who they are in order to grow into who the world around them has all but decided they should become. No one ever said growing up was easy, but for these two it most certainly is an uphill battle.
Infused with a bit of the supernatural (the two dabble with telekinesis and astral project) to keep the reader engaged with its subjects, Nicholas and Kristina becomes a hard novel to categorize. It’s not your typical coming of age story, but neither is it the sort of young adult fiction we’re fed by a mass market that’s desperate to cash in on the success of the Harry Potter franchise. It’s not violent like the Hunger Games. Nor is it horrific like Twilight. Instead it’s scarier than both of those things combined because its greatest strength lies not its ability for shock and awe, but with its heartfelt and realistic depiction of the universal pain involved with growing up.