Book review by
Mandie Caroll, Common Sense Media
Sanctuary Book Poster Image
Heart-wrenching dystopian tale of brave, undocumented teen.

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

Educational Value

Accurate depiction of the dangers many immigrants have faced getting to the U.S.-Mexico border: lack of fresh water and food, punishing weather, dangerous migrant-smugglers (called coyotes), risky travel on trains and through bodies of water, and xenophobic societies. Spanish words and phrases are used throughout, either immediately translated into English or clear via context or with a quick internet search.

Positive Messages

You don't know how strong you are until you face and survive what can seem like insurmountable obstacles. To persevere, pull hope and inspiration from those who you've admired: friends, parents, other family members, role models, ancestors, and so on. Hate can seem more powerful than love, but in the long run, it never is. Girls and immigrants are often ingenious: They must be smart and resourceful in order to survive and thrive.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Vali, the 16-year-old main character, is brave, quick-thinking, and a fierce protector of her 8-year-old brother, Ernie. They meet supportive allies; some make great sacrifices and take huge risks to help the youngsters along. Vali's family immigrated from Columbia, and other characters come from the Philippines, Brazil, Guatemala, and various other countries. All of the government's law enforcement forces are depicted as White. A secondary character identifies as gay, though it is not a major plot point.


The deaths of several characters are described in moderately gory language: several die bloody deaths by gunshot, one via a landmine, one drowns. Officers needlessly beat several immigrants with hands and feet in the course of detaining them for deportation. Sexual assault is referenced a couple times; sexual crimes are not described. A man threatens Vali with a gun, implies he will rape her, and grabs her butt; she escapes. Characters often face great peril (a near-death by heat exhaustion, riding atop a train, getting shot at, navigating a field of landmines, drones capable of capturing and carrying people away, etc.).


Hugging, hand holding, mild romantic tension between two opposite gender teen characters.


Regular use of swear words, including "s--t," "f--k," "ass," "damn," and "hell."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Vali and Ernie sleep near a dumpster one night where a fight between drunken men breaks out.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Sanctuary, by Women's March co-founder Paola Mendoza and writer Abby Sher, is a dystopian tale set in the near-future of 2032. Sixteen-year-old Vali, an undocumented immigrant from Columbia, takes charge of her 8-year-old brother after their mother is detained by deportation authorities. Brave but terrified, Vali leads Ernie on a dangerous journey across the country, hoping they can make it to the recently seceded sanctuary state of California. Readers will encounter accurate descriptions of dangers immigrants have long faced coming to the United States. This book's positive messages emphasize perseverance, finding hope in crisis, and the sacrifices and ingenuity of immigrants and women. Several characters are beaten by border patrol and deportation officers, some die: A few are murdered by gunshot, one dies in a land mine explosion, a young child drowns. The story is more scary than violent, though, with tension arising from the threat of capture and the perils of migrating through dangerous lands. Characters sometimes speak Spanish. They also swear regularly, including "s--t," "f--k," "ass," "damn," and "hell." In terms of representation, main characters are mostly Latinx, other characters are Black, Filipino, Indian, and so forth. Deportation Force officers appear to be White and mostly male.

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What's the story?

SANCTUARY opens in the United States in 2032, where the president has won a third term, citizens are microchipped and scanned routinely, and non-citizens are arrested and deported regularly. Vali's immigrant family, living in relative safety in Vermont, watch a holographic live feed of a teen girl attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border in California as Border Patrol officers on top of the "Great Wall" aim their rifles and scream at her. Fifteen steps in, a land mind detonates, blowing the girl to bits. A massive protest ensues, California secedes to form a sanctuary, and the president implements more drastic and violent measures to expel any remaining undocumented immigrants. Vali's mother hatches a plan to get them all to California, but before they even get on a bus out of town, Vali's mother is detained by Deportation Forces, and Vali must carry on with Ernie alone. The two travel to New York City, where a nun secures a "coyote" to smuggle them to California. But the plan is botched and fails to deliver them anywhere near safety. Vali must take bigger and bigger risks as they close in on California, but whether they make it depends on luck as much as pluck.

Is it any good?

This gut-punch of a dystopian novel artfully connects readers to our most basic human desires -- safety, freedom, family, love -- to tell a familiar story in a fresh and compelling way. Sanctuary is a cautionary tale about a future we might want to prevent, with heart-wrenching scenes of loss and grief as well as strikingly tender moments of relief and even joy. The writing is clear, urgent, and often beautiful. Characters quickly endear themselves to the reader. Vali, in particular, is unforgettable in her bravery and dogged pursuit of sanctuary, though there are many characters to love. The action moves at a brisk, stay-up-all-night-reading kind of pace.

While the authors' political beliefs may be clear, Sanctuary doesn't have a preachy or too-obvious vibe. All readers can expect to be deeply moved by this powerful book, but representation matters, and teens who are either immigrants or from immigrant families are likely to feel seen and understood as they follow Vali and Ernie on their perilous trip across the country. Parents and caregivers may want to read this book too, so that they can discuss the themes, messages, and real-world connections with their teens. This is a timely, impactful story that readers are sure to remember long after the book is closed.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about Vali's resourcefulness as she and Ernie are on the run in Sanctuary. How does she attend to Ernie's need for play and fun? How does she keep herself motivated after losing so much? How important are the allies she meets along the way?

  • Does the book's setting feel familiar to you? Why or why not? What about the politics of California and that of the "Other 49"? What do you think the authors want readers to understand by choosing this setting and political situation?

  • Surveillance technology plays a huge role in this story. Do you think that microchips for humans, find-and-capture drones, and other similar tech might ever be widely used or legally enforced in our country? Why or why not?

Book details

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For kids who love dystopian stories and immigrant stories

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