Spontaneous

Book review by
Darienne Stewart, Common Sense Media
Spontaneous Book Poster Image
Wickedly funny, foul-mouthed look at love and loss.

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A lot or a little?

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

Educational Value

Philosophical food for thought on living with unpredictability, accepting that not all problems can be solved, and learning that those we look to as protectors can't always help.

Positive Messages

The only certainty is uncertainty -- learning to live with that knowledge and find meaning and joy in life can be a challenge. Though relationships end, their emotional impact can be life-changing. Unchecked rumors can take on the sheen of reality and restrict our world.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Mara tries to establish some structure and sense of normalcy by leading the charge to resume classes, but she undermines her own efforts by encouraging classmates to drink and use drugs during school. Parents and authority figures are concerned and empathetic but generally ineffectual. Mara and her best friend are affectionate and considerate. Teachers who take over classes reject typical school standards and seize the opportunity for a more relaxed, collegiate approach. Still, lots of stressed teens behave very badly -- including Mara.

Violence

Several scenes involving teens exploding and the gory aftermath. References to sexual assaults and bullying. Some teens find the explosive situation "invigorating." Mention of a teen getting gunned down.

Sex

References to kissing, masturbation, and feeling "horny." Teen tells parents her boyfriend is staying the night and has sex with him. Teen discusses active but increasingly unsatisfying sex life. Some mentions of homosexuality and teen pregnancy.

Language

Abundant curse words and crude language on nearly every page, from the teenage narrator to adults (including the U.S. president), including these (and many variations of them): "f--k" and its variations, "crap," "badass," "bitch," "hell," "goddamn," "s--t," "d--k," "fag," "dammit," "ass," "pissed," "t--ts," "prick."

Consumerism

Mentions of snack foods, soda brands, restaurants, stores, candy, car models, and social media.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Mara drinks heavily and uses drugs, particularly weed, and intentionally gets drunk or high to avoid unpleasant emotions. She's friends with teen drug dealers, who are supplied by a well-known adult in town. Students organize prom with alcohol and no chaperones. Some students remain sober and look out for friends who are abusing alcohol and drugs.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Spontaneous is packed with swearing, gory scenes, drug use, and sexual activity. It's also smart, wry, and wickedly funny, a sure hit with teens who find absurdity in the everyday. Written by Aaron Starmer, it's for much older readers than his Riverman trilogy. The story literally starts with a bang -- when the first student explodes in class, drenching classmates and the walls with blood. As the body count grows, the teen narrator copes by taking increasing amounts of drugs, drinking heavily, and engaging in a lot of sexual activity with her boyfriend. Background stories include a teen bullied so extensively she moved, and another who left when she became pregnant with triplets. As the school and larger community break down, some students openly drink and use drugs in the classroom. Class members are shunned and feared, and one is shot and killed by neighbors.

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What's the story?

When Katelyn Ogden explodes at the start of SPONTANEOUS, people assume it's an isolated event. But then another student bursts in front of Mara and other traumatized students in therapy, and a third blows up at a football game. Soon Covington High is closed, the community is in shambles, and the government rolls into town. Is it terrorism, witchcraft, a government plot? Mara, meanwhile, is trying to figure out how to cope with the very real possibility that she -- and anyone else -- could die at any moment. She throws herself into an intense romance with Dylan, drinks and takes drugs, and marvels at her best friend, Tess, who keeps up with AP coursework and stays focused on planning for a future Mara fears will never play out.

Is it any good?

"Sieze the day" takes on new meaning in this twisted tale of high school seniors exploding unpredictably, leaving bloody body parts in their wake and triggering shock waves of fatalistic behavior. Mara, the self-centered, wry narrator of Spontaneous, reacts to the disaster around with a mix of freeing, adolescent pleasure-seeking and aggressively self-destructive behavior. Fear, guilt, excitement, and anger create a toxic brew.

Worried parents, concerned teachers, an FBI agent, and other adults want to help the unmoored students but are at a loss, unable to provide real aid or wise guidance. So the teens are abandoned to do as they see fit -- including serving alcohol at prom and taking drugs during sparsely attended classes. Some plot threads show more promise than they deliver and the ending offers no neat resolutions, muddying the book's message. But such is life.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the amount of language, sex, violence, and substance abuse in Spontaneous. Do you think it's portrayed in an appealing or negative light? Is it realistic? Appropriate?

  • Mara falls headlong into hedonism as her classmates disappear. Do you think her behavior helps or harms her ability to cope with what's happening?

  • Do you worry about losing friends as you head off to college and your adult future?

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