Research shows a connection between kids' healthy self-esteem and positive portrayals in media. That's why we've added a new "Diverse Representations" section to our reviews that will be rolling out on an ongoing basis. You can help us help kids by
suggesting a diversity update.
A List of Cages
Suggest an Update
A Lot or a Little?
The parents' guide to what's in this book.
Stands out for
What Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that A List of Cages is about two teen boys who meet up after five years apart. Julian's parents died when he was 9, and he spent a few months as a foster kid at Adam's house. When Julian's uncle becomes his guardian, the boys are separated. Adam, a senior in high school, takes freshman Julian under his wing when he discovers that Julian has no friends and is withdrawn and fearful. The novel realistically shows how easily foster kids slip through the cracks. Julian endures physical and mental abuse, some of which is depicted graphically and might be hard for sensitive readers to stomach. The long-term effects of such abuse is portrayed. Other parts of the book are more lighthearted, with Adam's good cheer buoying everyone around him. His character is an excellent role model for kindness and empathy. Dyslexia and ADHD figure into the story. High school seniors are depicted realistically: They joke around, flirt, worry about life after graduation, drink a little, swear ("f--k," "s--t," "a--hole"), and date. The drinking isn't glamorized, and Adam counsels Julian to drink only one beer. One teen lies to his mom about where he is on spring break, because he wants to take a trip with his girlfriend. There's some peer pressure, especially when the kids play the Game, which is just the "dare" part of Truth or Dare. A List of Cages has many positive messages about the power of caring and kindness and trying to look beyond the surface to see what people are going through.
(I was 21 when I read this and found it's graphic violence horrifying. Sensitive teens should exercise caution.)
** spoiler alert ** I have a lot of mixed feelings on this one. I loved Adam and I loved Julian. I loved their brotherly relationship, and I thought that it was portrayed well. Most of Adam's friends were stereotyped. The hipster/musician, the slut, the MC's crush. The only one that seemed unique was the BFG stereotype, who managed to break out of his stereotype by not being that friendly. I actually liked Charlie, once he started to be nice to Julian. Emerald (MC's crush) had more personality, but she was really just a stereotype with personality. I felt that her romance with Adam was just a distraction from the story. From Julian. The only thing that she did that moved the plot was when she told Adam that he couldn't call the police without Julian's permission, and that was a negative way to move the plot. I can understand why Julian's desperate pleading would stop them from calling the police--at least right then, but even if Julian made Adam promise not to tell the school's psychologist, I don't know how Adam could have gone without telling his mother. He seemed so close to his mother, and his mother cared desperately for both Adam and Julian. She would have been able to find a way to get Julian out of there without betraying his trust. I guess I just don't understand how you can know that something terrible is happening to someone, and not do anything about it. I can see being in a place where you don't know what to do because you know you should call the police, but the person you need to help is begging you not to, but I don't understand not doing anything. Not telling your mother. Especially because Adam's mother loved both Adam and Julian. I also found the resolution between Adam and Emerald to be forced. The kind of emotions that Adam would have been feeling after saving Julian is the type of thing that would end a relationship. He knew that he was (to a certain degree) wrong to blame Emerald for not calling the police, but he couldn't help feeling anger at her. And anger at himself. And she would probably have blamed herself too. The resolution felt forced. Like the author wanted this relationship fixed and tied in a little bow, but relationships are messy, and especially after such an experience, they both would have had to work out how they felt. Especially Adam. She told him not to call the police when Adam's (sort of) little brother was being beaten. That is not something that would be ironed out in a short talk by a lake. I guess I didn't like Emerald that much. Her character was fairly bland and she was a distraction from the plot. I wish authors realized that there doesn't always have to be a romance in YA books. And the one thing Emerald did contribute to the plot was to tell Adam not to call the police. That's the thing that everyone tells you TO do if you realize someone you know is experiencing abuse. Adam shouldn't have had to cope with figuring out what to do without an adult.
I did like Charlie. His natural jealously at his best friend's new friend, and his resentment of that, and his knowledge (never acknowledged, but implied) that that was wrong, and finally, his reluctant warming to Julian, and the moment when he saw both Adam and Julian in danger, and saved their lives.
The ending was forced. It was exciting, but it didn't feel real. Russell was wanted for child abuse but "no one was really looking for him." People cared so little that he was able to wander back to the house where Julian was staying and nearly kidnap him. I have not to research into police tactics, but I think that if a child is found locked in a trunk, beaten and nearly dead, they would take finding the perpetrator a lot more seriously. Such a thing would have made the news. And they would have searched the house for evidence, not just cleared out Julian's stuff. I doubt if Julian and Adam could have just waltzed right back into that house, and even if they could have, I think the police would have already searched it and cleared out the sick thing that Adam found. Yes, it made for an exciting climax, having Russell show up, try to kidnap Julian and get shot, but that's not how real life works. In real life, Julian would have had to endure watching Russell go to trial. He would have had to testify against him, and deal with the psychological effects of the abuse he endured, and of having to testify against Russell. That isn't something ties an ending up with a neat bow, but it's real life. Okay, I can see why the author did it. We read books to escape, and that means we want a neat little happy ending tied in a bow. But this horrifying types of stories do not end with a bow, so it felt forced and unrealistic to have such an ending, and that took me out of the book.
I think that this would have been better as a new adult book, or even an adult book. The abuse was chronicled in too much detail for a book for teens, and if it had been an adult book that there would have been a sort of permission granted the author that isn't given in teen books, to not resolve everything. I think that that would have ended the book better. To have Julian healing, but not perfectly well and content, and nothing bad will ever happen to him again, and he doesn't have any psychological issues to deal with anymore. That ending so perfect took me out of the book, because it felt so unrealistic. And again, I thought that we were given too much detail of the abuse. If this had been an adult book, at least I would have expected it, but even if this had been an adult book, I don't think we needed such horrifying, stomach hurting detail.
Again, I loved Adam and Julian, and the bond they shared, I wanted to see more of their brotherly relationship. But there was a lot in the book that I didn't love. I think if there had been less detail of the abuse, and no stupid unnecessary teen romance, and no unrealistically perfect bow at the end of the story, I think that I would have loved this book, but there was too much.
A LIST OF CAGES depicts a rekindled friendship between two high school boys. Julian was a foster kid at Adam's house for a short time after Julian's parents died. When Julian's uncle becomes his guardian, the boys don't see each other for five years, until senior Adam is given the task of escorting freshman Julian to the school psychologist's office. Adam is the happy-go-lucky kid he's always been, a favorite of peers and adults alike. Julian still seems to be sweet and kind, but he is clearly withdrawn and troubled. He has no friends and hides out in a secret room at school. The story is told in alternating points of view between the two boys. Adam works hard to reconnect with Julian, eventually drawing him into his supportive circle of friends. When he starts to realize how terrible Julian's life has been, he's conflicted about whether to keep Julian's secret or get him help. Eventually things get dark and lives are on the line. The bonds of their friendship are tested, with the main question being: How much can you help someone who won't let you?
Is It Any Good?
With a story that alternates between grim and uplifting, this tale of a neglected foster child and his only friend will break your heart and give you hope. In A List of Cages, Julian and Adam are well-drawn, empathetic characters. Adam is lighthearted and kind but not shallow. He has deep reserves of empathy that make you immediately like him as a character. Julian's character is heartbreaking but sweet, and the loss and abuse he endures is almost too much to bear at times. The dark passages are balanced out by the kindness Adam and his friends show Julian and by scenes of teens interacting and having fun. The book realistically shows the snowball effect of abuse and neglect: In addition to destroying a kid's emotional well-being, it can affect him academically and socially, leaving him further isolated. Also realistic is Adam's struggle over his promise to keep Julian's secret and his wanting to help him.
The story is moving and gripping. Both kids grow a lot emotionally over the course of the book, and it's heartwarming to watch it happen. The writing, though, is uneven. It's lyrical in many parts but flat in others. Aside from Julian and Adam, most of the other characters are less well-developed and mostly serve as archetypes (the hot girl, the sweet girl, and so on). With the exception of the school psychologist, who is merely ineffective, the teachers and principal are too mean to Julian to be believable, given that they should have known of his dyslexia and foster situation. A confrontation toward the end of the book feels jammed into the story and over the top; it doesn't serve much purpose except to add more drama.
Talk to Your Kids About ...
Families can talk about the issue of a teen needing help but failing to ask for it, as shown in A List of Cages. This happens in many books and movies. Do you feel this is a realistic character trait? Do you understand why these characters wouldn't want to get help? Does it frustrate you to read or watch these kinds of scenes?
The teachers, principal, and nurse generally are quite mean in A List of Cages. Is that realistic, or do you think most teacher and administrators want to help their students?
Julian escapes into a favorite book series when things get dark in his life. It helps him in his worst moments. Which books or movies help you get your mind off your troubles?