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Sunday, May 8, 2011

Unlocked, wirtten by Ryan G. Van Cleave. Walker, Penguin. 2011. $20.00 ages 13 and up

"Everyone called me a hero,
but it didn't feel that way.

I was a snitch.
I told on my friend.
I was a thief.
I stole my father's keys.
I was a liar.
I lied about it all.
I was popular
for all the wrong reasons."

Power in poetry? You bet there is! This harrowing story is told perfectly as a novel in verse. It is filled with anger, hate, sadness, confusion and tension. I could not stop reading once I started, and I feel drained and in limbo now it is done.

We know about school shootings. We see the aftermath in news reports, and sometimes news teams are reporting as it happens. We see the people, the place, the action; but, can any of us conceive of the events leading to it? So many kids today are dealing with difficulty and despair. It might be about family issues, lack of support, money, drugs and alcohol, bullying and abuse, any number of social issues that leave them feeling hopeless and helpless. And, let's remember (despite our years of decision making and learning from our mistakes) they have not experienced much of life and have little basis for understanding the consequences for their response to perceived, or real, wrongs.

Ryan Van Cleave, in his first novel for teens, seems to get it! Andy is a freshman and the janitor's's not enough to be new and uncertain, right? He is teased by peers, does well enough in school; but, he has no friends. There are others like him but they don't gravitate toward each other. How hard is that? When he meets Blake, he seems to have found a kindred spirit. They are both good kids, have issues, and don't make trouble.

Andy hears that Blake has a gun. Wanting to impress a girl, he makes it his business to find out. He steals his father's keys, breaks into the school and checks out Blake's locker. No gun. Word gets back to Blake about it. Blake doesn't seem resentful, and soon they start spending time together:

"I thought of what it meant
that he trusted me enough
to show me the Beretta,
that we hung out at McDonald's,
that he texted me daily -
usually it was nothing important,
but sometimes
what he wrote
felt storm-cloud dark."

The author keeps the action taut and moving quickly. Always a bit of a mystery, but reeking of impending doom. What would you do if you thought your friend might be planning something dire?

Impeccable writing, perfect foreshadowing, intense sympathy for the two boys and reasonable anger at those who cannot see the consequences of their own actions make this a read I will not soon forget. And, I will eagerly await Ryan Van Cleave's second novel for teens. Thank you!

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