Reading guide to Picture Me Gone

by Meg Rosoff

Laureate of the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award 2016

Written by Maria Lassén-Seger (published in Feb 2017)

About the Author

Meg Rosoff believes the job of an author is to think – but she writes books that make readers think, too. An overarching theme of Rosoff’s novels for young adults is that life is just as complex for young people as it is for adults. Young or old, we all wrestle with life’s big questions.

Rosoff’s novels constantly blur the boundaries: between children and adults, people and animals, the real world and the supernatural. She has said that she is drawn to the margins, to what happens on the fringes, to things that are ambiguous or unclear. Many of her books are about young people who are put to the test under drastic circumstances. This infuses her texts with a sense of urgency and a strong emotional charge, as if they were truly a matter of life and death.

Rosoff’s prose is clean and crystal-clear; while not challenging to read, it allows for multiple interpretations and rewards repeated readings. Her humor can be extreme, even dark, but she balances unvarnished truth-telling with a healthy dose of joie de vivre, a lively curiosity and a firm belief in her young protagonists and their ability to find a way forward in life.

Picture Me Gone (2013)
In Picture Me Gone, Mila, age twelve, travels to the United States over the Easter holidays with her father Gil to look for Gil’s childhood friend, Matthew. Mila imagines she will need to look after her absentminded father. She is observant and good at solving puzzles: qualities that will come in handy since Matthew inexplicably went missing a few days ago, leaving his wife Suzanne, his baby and his dog and disappearing without a trace. At Matthew’s beautiful glass house in upstate New York, the atmosphere is heavy and oppressive. Mila is on the alert for clues to Matthew’s disappearance. She ponders theories and eavesdrops when the adults discuss things they think she is too young to hear.

Gil and Mila drive to Matthew’s cabin on the Canadian border to see if Matthew is hiding there. They do not find him, but they do find more puzzle pieces of his tragic and complicated life story. Mila has a logical mind and can usually put two and two together, but she finds it hard to see the purpose of Matthew’s apparently irrational behavior. Although unusually insightful for her age, Mila nevertheless lacks the life experience to understand how adults can be pushed to their limit by poor decisions, guilt and shame. Mila is lucky to have grown up in a secure and close-knit family. Now, that safe world collides with the painful insight that even grown-ups can go off course and let other people down. When she discovers that her own parents have kept things from her in an effort to protect her, she implodes in anger and grief.

Picture Me Gone seamlessly weaves together the story of Mila’s trip to America, told in flashbacks, with her ruminations on relationships and the conundrums of (adult) life. The strongest parallel thread is her musings on her friendship with another girl her age, Cat. Mila and Cat have been friends since they were seven or eight years old, but since entering different classes at school they have drifted apart. Mila remembers their lively spy games and how she felt drawn to wild, madcap, unpredictable Cat, in many ways her opposite. On her trip to New York Mila begins to better understand Cat’s desperate behavior. The girls keep in touch by texting, and when Cat tells Mila that her parents, who are always fighting, are getting a divorce, Mila realizes her own importance to Cat.

Meg Rosoff has said that she writes books about ideas, and Picture Me Gone is a clear example. Although it features an exciting plot centered around the search for Matthew, the real jigsaw Mila is assembling involves more difficult, existential questions: lies and misconceptions of reality, silences and secrets within families, mistakes that can shape the course of your life, guilt, shame, friendship, intimacy, grief and loss. These are somber subjects, but the novel also contains equal portions of love, warmth, hope and optimism. Rosoff tells us that as human beings, these painful insights are necessary for us to grow. The novel derives its intensity from the way it reveals details to the reader and to Mila at the same pace, so that we struggle alongside her with the same existential puzzle.

 

Things to think about
Consider the novel’s opening sentence: “The first Mila was a dog.” Rosoff’s books frequently portray strong connections between people and animals, especially dogs. What role do dogs play in this novel? In what ways might Mila be “doggish”?

Mila is an extremely sensitive person who is good at reading moods and people. Are her talents in any way supernatural? Does she have a sixth sense? Can she read minds?

What similarities exist between Gil’s and Matthew’s friendship, and Mila’s and Cat’s?

What does friendship mean to Mila? Does her friendship with Cat change during the book?

Why is Cat so obsessed with playing spy games and pretending that she and Mila must save the world from an enemy invasion?

Do you agree with Mila that your friends reveal who you are?

Why does Gil call Mila Perguntador? How would you describe their father-daughter relationship?

Gil is a translator and likes to talk about the possibilities and limits of language. Can you find examples of either in the book?

Why does Mila get so angry at Gil? Why does she think that he has let her down?

Mila is secure and strong, resourceful and observant. But what is her greatest fear?

What happens when Mila meets Matthew? How does she react to his state of mind, his inner darkness?

When Mila and Gil bring Matthew back home to Suzanne, Mila’s view of Suzanne has changed. How? And why does Mila understand Suzanne differently now?

Think about the book’s multilayered title. How does it relate to the book’s content?

Think about the book’s last sentence. How does it sum up the inner journey Mila takes throughout the book?

 

Further reading (in Swedish)
Lassén-Seger, Maria. “Unik blandning av humor och allvar,” in Opsis Barnkultur, 2016(2), pp. 4–9.

Olsson, Lotta. “Hon hittade sig själv vid 48 års ålder,” Dagens Nyheter, 30 May 2016, pp. 4–5.

Rosoff, Meg. “Sanningen om att ljuga för barn,” in Opsis Barnkultur, 2016(3), pp. 24-27.

Warnqvist, Åsa. “Rosoff tar fasta på livets magiska realism,” Svenska Dagbladet, 30 May 2016, pp. 28–29.

In English
Listen to Meg Rosoff’s 2015 Philippa Pearce Memorial Lecture, “Do not be afraid to be afraid,” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kzLn4wPzND8

More about Meg Rosoff