A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this book.
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Adam, a senior in high school, takes freshman Julian under his wing when he discovers that Julian has no friends and is withdrawn and fearful.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.
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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 Julian still seems to be sweet and kind, but he is clearly withdrawn and troubled.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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