This month we’re looking at some YA and middle-grade titles that could be described as “high-interest”: stories that grab you and don’t let go. But these two YA novels also contain some thought-provoking material–especially the first. (And speaking of “high-interest,” the movie version of Divergent opens today! See our reviews of all three titles in the trilogy: Divergent, Insurgent, and Allegiant.)
When Daniel Wright of Freedom Lake, Idaho, joined the National Guard at age 17, it was largely to honor his late father, who fought in Iran. Iran? Yep—though we’re not given a date, we’re in a recognizable future where the endless War on Terror has opened up new fronts in Iran and Pakistan. Life continues normally back home, and Daniel has no reason to suspect momentous happenings as he wraps up football practice and looks forward to a party on the lake with his best buds and best girl. Then the call comes from the Guard: his unit is needed to re-establish order in Boise, where public demonstrations regarding the government’s latest actions are getting out of hand. Governor Montaine has taken a stand opposing the Feds’ requirement that every US citizen apply for an ID card that can be tracked. The state of Idaho has opted out on constitutional grounds, and other states may follow suit. That’s why citizens have taken to the streets, and when the Guardsmen arrive there seem to be as many protesters as supporters, all yelling and waving signs. And throwing rocks. In the melee Daniel accidentally fires a shot, making himself the flashpoint of what may become the second American Civil War.
I swore to obey the orders of my president and of my governor. I swore to defend the Constitution. I swore these things before God. May God forgive me. May God in heaven forgive us all.
Federalism, nullification, constitutional limits, separation of powers—when we talk to teens about these subjects, their eyes tend to get glassy. Yeah, yeah. . . stop yelling, you sound like Rush (who, incidentally, is emulated in the novel). Divided We Fall makes it all too real, and all too possible. This is what a clash of powers looks like. This is how law-abiding citizens might react when pushed too far. It would be easy to parody either side, but the author, a former Guardsman and Afghanistan vet, doesn’t do that. Our sympathies may tend toward the right, but there’s a high price to pay and there may be no winners. I need to warn readers that the narrative includes a lot of crude language, some sexual innuendo, and one occasion of (ahem) intimacy between Daniel and his girlfriend JoBell. He intends to marry her–even has the ring—but anything can happen because this is only the first volume in the series (I didn’t realize that until I got to the end—ARGH!). That said, there is no profanity, not even an Oh my God! And the Christian faith is presented in a positive light. The novel stretches credulity a bit with occasional echoes of Red Dawn, but after you read it you’ll probably want to talk about it. Read the preview pages on Amazon.com to decide if it’s suitable for your teens, but in my opinion, Divided We Fall raises vital questions in a vital way.
- Worldview/moral value: 4
- Literary value: 3.5
Sylo, by D. J. McHale. Razorbill, 2013, 407 pages. Age/interest level: 13-up.
It was the perfect night for a football game. And for death.
That’s one wowser way to start a novel: a star tailback turns in an awesome performance, just before staring at the protagonist with wild eyes and falling over dead. Yes, sometimes that happens for no reason, but when a too-smooth, shaggy-haired guy in a hoodie talks Tucker Price into taking a few grains of an “organic energy booster” called Ruby, Tucker has to wonder if this mysterious substance has something to do with his teammate’s spectacular gridiron performance. And death. But next he has something more to worry about, as the US Army storms the beach like it was D-Day and quarantines all of Pemberwick Island (Maine) because of some highly contagious virus found among the populace. Coincidence??
The strength of this high-octane thriller is high-octane thrills, with towering stakes and 400+ pages that turn almost by themselves. Also a likeable hero with a worthy best friend, and a potential romantic interest who’s prickly as a cactus but comes through in a crisis. The drawbacks are too much profanity, though of the “mild” kind (what the hell, badass, my God, etc.) and an impression of the US government that’s as bad as any conspiracy theorist could cook up. I don’t think there’s much to be gained, generally, by trashing one’s own country–but the next volume in the series is coming up soon, and remember things are not as they seem. In the meantime, attend to your own stuff, as Tucker says: There are lots of important things you can do. They don’t all have to be written about in history books. It’s just as important to take care of the little things.
- Worldview/moral value: 3.5
- Literary value: 3.5
For thrillers with substance, Andrew Klavan is our guy. See our summer read-along of his Homelanders trilogy here, and check out our review ofIf We Survive. Plus an interview. For more YA thrills and chills, see our reviews of The 5th Wave and The Reluctant Assassin.