Friday, April 14, 2017

Young Adult Fiction: A List of Cages by Robin Roe

Today's post has been brought to you by the impulse buy at Half Price Books. It is not often that I will pick up a brand new book at the used book store. I usually reserve such purchases for Amazon or the rare chances I get to stop by BookPeople. But while I was waiting for my latest shipment from Amazon, I found myself staring at Robin Roe's A List of Cages and lamenting that it was not going to be included in my next package. So I decided to go ahead and just buy it then and there...along with a few others.

The Situation: Adam is a senior in high school and can hardly sit still. It is not because he cannot wait to graduate, or even because his classes are boring, though they are. Adam has ADHD, but manages to keep it pretty under control without hardcore pharmaceuticals. He may have a hard time reading social cues, and can never seem to stop talking, but as long as he is able to get up and move around occasionally, he is fine. For one of his senior year electives, his task is to track down a troubled freshman who has a habit of skipping sessions with the school psychologist. Adam is glad to be able to move around for once, but he does not expect for the troubled freshman to be Julian, the foster brother he has not seen in years. Julian lives with his Uncle Russell now, having lost both parents at a very young age. The two boys could not be more different, with Adam being outgoing and popular, and Julian being withdrawn and awkward. But Adam is glad to reunite with the brother he lost.

The Problem: It is clear that Julian is going through something, but the young boy is so timid, and so hesitant to share anything, even as he and Adam become friends despite the differences in their social standing. It is a friendship that even Adam's closest friends do not quite get as it becomes more and more normalized, and soon Julian is one of the gang. But there is something about his life at home with his Uncle Russell that Adam does not like, but he cannot quite put his finger on it. Julian will suddenly stay at home sick for days at a time, and when Adam finally comes upon the truth, he is torn between telling an adult, and honoring Julian's wish to keep things quiet. But Julian's problems may end up spelling trouble for the both of them if someone does not step in soon.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel that follows two young male narrators. Adam is the popular and almost constantly moving senior in high school, while Julian is the socially awkward freshman who hates English class because the teacher makes him read out loud. When they were both in elementary school, Adam's mother took Julian in as a foster child after his parents were killed in a car accident. They would have kept Julian with them forever, had his Uncle Russell not shown up and decided to take him in instead. Five years later and the two boys are now attending the same high school. Adam is still the same hyperactive boy with the friendly smile whom everyone seems to adore, but Julian is more like a frightened and wounded animal than the stubborn and creative boy he used to be. Perhaps it is Adam's ADHD that makes him not care at all how people look at him when he hangs out with Julian. Not even the menacing and angry looks from his best friend, Charlie, keep him from inviting the freshman along on every adventure the group plans. It is not a book only about the foster system, or troubled teens, or child abuse, or ADHD, though it does contain all of those things. If anything, it is about what can be accomplished when we extend a hand, even if we do not get a positive response right away.

My Verdict: Yes, there is difficult subject matter. Yes, you may cry because there is a pain described in these pages that no one, much less a small child, should experience. And oh yes, there are moments of pure frustration because the solution seems obvious, though the characters ignore it, and we as people and readers are incapable of not playing the "if they had only just" game. But given all of that, it is a book worth reading and confronting. It is not hard or painful just for the sake of being hard or painful. And I do not get the sense that Roe is trying to make us all better people and teach us a lesson. The story does not come off that way. Instead it comes off as a heartbreaking tale of a young man who has accepted less than what he deserves because it is all he has gotten for so long, and he has been told it is all he should get. But it all changes because someone decides to show him otherwise.

Favorite Moment: When Julian and Charlie are able to have a one-on-one conversation without Adam in between. Charlie is the very definition of the big scary senior, but the two manage a short conversation where both sides get to be honest.

Favorite Character: I did not care for him much at first - although I guess I was not supposed to - but Charlie eventually became my favorite. He's big, he's angry at the world, and he cannot stop complaining about everything. But when it comes down to it, he just wants attention like everyone else and hates feeling forgotten.

Recommended Reading: Kids of Appetite by David Arnold also switches between two teenage narrators, but this time it is a boy and girl as they tell the story of how they ended up in separate interrogation rooms at the police station.    

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