In Search of Us

Book review by
Andrea Beach, Common Sense Media
In Search of Us Book Poster Image
Teen digs into mom's past in compelling coming-of-age tale.

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Kids say

age 14+
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A lot or a little?

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

Educational Value

Some famous photographers mentioned. Brief description of how to take pictures with a nondigital camera. Excerpts from some Joan Didion essays. A short reading list about the African American experience.

Positive Messages

You can't put the past behind you, or hide from it; you have to face it head on even if it hurts, otherwise you can't live fully in the present. Losses may never heal, but you can't let them be an excuse to give up or never to try in the first place; they should be the force that drives you to live the life you were meant to live. If you can acknowledge what it is you're afraid of, you can at least start figuring out how to deal with it, even if it's worse than you imagined. Some iffy messages about body image related to a career in acting or modeling.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Marilyn's a good model for handling people's reactions to her biracial daughter gracefully while making it clear that dark skin is beautiful too. Marilyn makes mistakes, especially when she's overwhelmed by grief and guilt, and doesn't fully understand those mistakes until many years later. When she does, she asks for forgiveness and looks for a way forward. Angie acts impulsively and selfishly, driven by her need to understand her parents' past. Once she understands better she matures enough to try to make amends and move forward in positive ways. James is a great role model for teen boys, intellectually curious, encouraging Marilyn to use her anger and frustration productively -- a great older brother who's loving and helpful to his grandparents who raise him.

Violence

Police shoot a teen in the back; the teen dies. No gore, but mention of the lifeless body. An adult attacking a teen smothers with a pillow, drags by the hair, and slashes with a knife. The teen scratches and knees the attacker. A teen talks briefly about more than once being made to watch a man "jerk off" when she was a preteen. An adult slaps a teen in the face.

Sex

Teen sex is implied or vaguely described, including mentions of kissing, passionate making out, penetration, oral sex, masturbation, mutual masturbation, experiencing pain the first time, and emotional as well as physical desire. Teen pregnancy is an important part of the story, and a mother pressures her teen daughter to "get it taken care of." Same-sex making out mentioned. A child sees her mother briefly kiss.

Language

Rare but strong, including "f--k," "pr--k" (name calling), "s--t," "ass," "slut," "butt," "jerk off," and "a--hole."

Consumerism

Lots of car, food, beverage, pop culture, beauty, and alcohol products mentioned to establish time period, location, mood, and character.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

A secondary adult character drinks heavily and becomes hostile when drunk. Lots of adults mentioned having mostly beer and wine. Teens "pilfer" beer and strawberry wine from adults. At a party, teens drink lemon drop shots and French 75s. Consequences are mostly related to the plot, but some hangover symptoms mentioned. Two characters smoke marijuana; one describes feeling immediately relaxed after one hit. Smell of marijuana mentioned several times, and mention of a music video in which teens pass a joint. A few secondary or minor characters smoke. A man smokes cigars. A woman smells of smoke.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that In Search of Us is a coming-of-age story with frank but not graphic sexuality that makes it best for teens and up. Masturbation, penetration, mutual masturbation, oral sex, and more are implied or described vaguely. A teen remembers being forced as a child to watch a man "jerk off." Teen pregnancy is an important element. A police shooting that kills a teen mentions the dead body. An adult attacks a teen, trying to smother her with a pillow and slashing with a knife. Lots of drinking by a secondary, alcoholic character who's very hostile when drunk. Teens occasionally sneak beer and wine or hard alcohol at a party; consequences are related to the plot and hangover symptoms are mentioned. Teens use marijuana a few times. Race is a strong undercurrent but not a defining characteristic of any of the characters. There's a police shooting of an innocent African American, and biracial Angie wishes she'd grown up more connected to the African American side of her family. How the past affects us is a prominent theme, and it's a good opportunity to talk about how your own family's experiences affect where you live, who you are, and what you make of your life.

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Teen, 15 years old Written byHRM1104 July 16, 2018

What's the story?

IN SEARCH OF US weaves back and forth in time between 17-year-old Marilyn and, years later, her daughter, Angie, who's now 17 herself. Back in the '90s, Marilyn was chafing against her mother's hopes for Marilyn's acting career, wanting nothing more than to get into college somewhere far away. As Marilyn starts to fall for James, the cute guy in the downstairs apartment, she and James start to change and reshape each other's hopes and dreams, until tragedy takes them all away. In the present, Marilyn's daughter, Angie, is haunted by all she doesn't know about her mother's sorrow. On a hunch, Angie takes off to Los Angeles, hoping to track down an uncle who can give her some answers and who may even be the key to meeting the father she thought was long dead.

Is it any good?

This compelling story has the depth to elevate it above just another fraught mother-daughter YA novel. As Angie goes In Search of Us, author Ava Dellaira's writing draws you into the characters' lives with intriguing glimpses of the past and keeps the pages turning as it moves toward the ending you dread but can't turn away from. Teens will easily relate to both characters as they learn how much the past affects us in the present, as well as how to turn wounds that won't heal into a force that drives you to the life you were meant to have.

Some readers without a pretty good working knowledge of '90s music may find the frequent references to artists and songs at worst an intrusion and at best unhelpful. But it may inspire some readers to give a listen to some of it, too. The frank sexuality and mature themes, such as issues related to race, make it best for high schoolers and up. And it's a worthwhile read for those who like a healthy dose of family secrets in their romantic coming-of-age stories.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the sexy stuff in In Search of Us. Does it seem realistic? The publisher recommends the book for ages 12 and up. Do you agree with that age range? How much is OK in books for teens and tweens?

  • Do the brand-name products, songs, and music artists add realism or help you understand the characters and time periods? Or is it too much? How much are teens really obsessed with name brands?

  • How important is the racial difference between James and Marilyn? How might the story change if they were the same race? What effect does the difference have on Angie?

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