A List of Cages

Book review by
Mary Cosola, Common Sense Media
A List of Cages Book Poster Image
Dark, moving foster-kid story shows power of friendship.

Parents say

age 16+
Based on 1 review

Kids say

age 13+
Based on 7 reviews

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Characters discuss the staging of a few Shakespeare plays. Insights into what it's like to have dyslexia and ADHD. Discussion of various treatments for ADHD, including medications and their side effects and alternative, holistic approaches. Book provides a realistic look at how some foster kids can slip through the cracks at school and in the foster system. Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) figures into the plot, though it's not named.

Positive Messages

Empathy plays a large part in the book's plot -- the importance of it and how some people are born with it and others learn it. It can take only one caring person to completely turn someone's life around. You can create your own support network if you don't have a family or your home isn't a safe place. If you can keep even a glimmer of hope that things will improve for you; you can work through even the most awful of circumstances.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Adam is a kind and friendly guy who has deep reserves of empathy. He works hard to reconnect with Julian and goes out of his way to take care of him, eventually drawing him into his kind and supportive circle of friends. Julian is sweet and kind, but he is clearly withdrawn and troubled due to years of abuse. Even though he seems passive, he demonstrates a lot of strength to endure all that he goes through. In flashback, we learn that Julian's parents were loving, supportive people who taught him to be caring and empathetic. Julian's teachers and principal are unbelievably mean to him, but the school psychologist tries to break through to Julian and enlists Adam's help to figure out what's going on with him.


A kid suffers emotional and physical abuse. Some of it is graphic, and the wounds and pain are described in detail. Some school bullying from elementary school told in flashback. One minor high school hallway skirmish involving pushing. Kids watch a slasher movie with a stabbing scene. A kid is confined in a small trunk for days. Two characters get in a serious fistfight, with bloodied noses. A man gets shot.


The story has some mild romantic teen drama, involving questions of who likes whom or couples who date off and on again. Kids talk a little about sex and making out. Adam and his friends play a game like truth or dare that is only the dare part, and it often involves boys taking off most of their clothing. Emphasis on the attractiveness of girls in Adam's group of friends. Some kissing and making out. Two kids have sex, but it is only talked about, never described. Teens shown hanging out in bed together, likely after having sex.


Some swearing, but it isn't frequent: "f--k" and it's variations, "s--t," "pissed," "ass," "a--hole," "hell," "bitch," "balls," "Jesus," "God," "damn," "dicks," and "bastard."


Brands mentioned for scene-setting or in passing: Saab, Connect Four, Jenga, Ziploc, Oreo, iPod. Several movies and TV shows referenced: Terminator, Swiss Family Robinson, Spiderman, Superman, Bambi, The Bachelor, Family Feud. Also, YouTube, Disney Channel, and Nickelodeon.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

A little drinking in the book. No drugs. Teen birthday party with alcohol. Adam counsels Julian by suggesting he have only one beer. A few kids get drunk. Girl peer-pressures Julian into drinking to excess. Adam and his friends have beer while hanging out; one of the kids gets drunk and throws up.

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.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written byHildegard April 2, 2019

Very Graphic

(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... Continue reading
Teen, 14 years old Written bystars.and.moons May 10, 2019

Amazing Story

I adored this book, it is beautifully written and has amazing messages about kindness, friendship, and family. It is a very sad story and some parts were hard f... Continue reading
Teen, 15 years old Written byNoobNightGuard July 12, 2018

A Beautiful Emotional Journey

This story was an amazing story. I saw JesseTheReader talk about this book and decided to get it at the library. This book came as a surprise to me. I'm n... Continue reading

What's the story?

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?

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