Parents' Guide to

The Alex Crow

By Sandie Angulo Chen, Common Sense Media Reviewer

age 14+

Orphan refugee finds new family in beautifully bizarre tale.

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Smith is a master at detailing the enormous intellectual and psychological swings of male adolescence. In this case, he focuses on the refugee experience of 15-year-old Ariel, who has experienced the worst humanity has to offer; eight weeks at an unpleasant summer camp for boys without video games, computers, or television is nothing compared with hiding from a massacre in a refrigerator or dealing with amoral "orphan kings" in a refugee camp. His story is the heart of The Alex Crow and by far the most immersive. In his acknowledgements, Smith credits his English-as-a-second-language students for inspiring Ariel, and it's obvious, because Smith never judges what Ariel does or doesn't do to survive. Ariel lives through brutal situations with his dignity and strength of character.

The other two stories (and that pesky suicidal crow) are important to the plot, but they're not as heartbreakingly real. The doctor, one of very few to survive an Arctic expedition, learns what it's like to allow something horrible to happen for his benefit, and the "melting man" is a murderous and insane individual who honestly believes Joseph Stalin is talking to him. The 19th-century doctor's story is compelling, but the melting man's can be difficult to read, even though Smith imbues it with occasional humor. Ultimately, this is Ariel's story, one of figuratively dying and being born again. With his brother, Max, a wordsmith who spends most of the book coming up with clever euphemisms for masturbation, and bunkmate Codie, a natural leader who can convince anyone of anything, Ariel finally rediscovers the idea of friendship and brotherhood, something he hasn't felt since the day the rebels came to his village and killed everyone he knew and loved. Smith's books might not be easy to read, but they're easy to love and impossible to forget.

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