The Riverman

Book review by
Carrie R. Wheadon, Common Sense Media
The Riverman Book Poster Image
Thoughtful coming-of-age fantasy great for reading together.

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Kids say

age 11+
Based on 1 review

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A lot or a little?

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

Educational Value

The story takes place in a fictional town in upstate New York, but the author provides a pretty accurate snapshot of growing up in the 1980s. Readers can look for period details such as cassette tape players, posters of Lamborghinis, and more.

Positive Messages

The Riverman is especially thought-provoking on two topics: keeping secrets, and plagiarism. It also devotes a lot of attention to the issue of having a creative mind. Fiona talks about what's missing from her imaginary world: "It's more emotional. Things you can't wish up yourself. Things only others can provide. Encouragement. Debate. Love. Hate even, I guess...You'd be surprised what your mind can't create. It's often the things you really need."

Positive Role Models & Representations

Conflicted Alistair often doesn't make the right decision. It may seem that he keeps too many secrets, but it's also true that the ones he learns from Fiona are hard not to keep, because no one would believe him anyway. Usually his heart's in the right place: He wants to protect his friend. But on Halloween he nods approval when his friends are tempted to take all the candy off someone's front porch, and he's willing to choose a violent "solution" to a problem without thinking through the consequences.


Someone close to the main character is shot, and a girl goes missing from her home. Someone else is threatened with a gun. Fiona's grandmother dies -- Alistair doesn't think it's from old age -- and Fiona and Alistair go to the funeral. A friend of the main character loses fingers in a fireworks mishap. Three boys play a "Jack in the Box" game, sitting under a box in a road to see if cars go around them or through them; one almost gets hit. Boys have a fistfight and get hit with bad-smelling balloons and shaving cream. There's talk of children going missing and what might have happened to them in the real world, and there's talk of what happened to them in a fantasy world: A shadowy character steals their souls. A flashback shows a child's body at the bottom of a river, arm waving in the current. Fiona recalls her family dog biting her as a toddler and then being put down. A story tells about a mother being beaten in front of her children who then tries to poison her attacker with bleach. A character talks about staging his own death so he can disappear.


A couple of light kisses and a little bawdy talk, such as asking whether a girl "does it" and discussion of naked pictures.


Fairly mild, infrequent swearing and crude language: "damn," "badass," "hell," "balls," "screw you," and "screwed him over."


Alistair and Charlie play Nintendo games frequently. In a few scenes, characters eat Oreos. Quick mentions of Barbie, Lamborghini, Legos, Jeep, M&Ms, and Snickers.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Two characters smoke regularly: Fiona's uncle and Charlie's older teen brother, Kyle. Kyle also drinks at a party with other older teens and has booze and cigarettes in his truck. Adults drink beer at a barbecue and wine at a funeral.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Riverman is the first book in a thought-provoking coming-of-age/fantasy trilogy and a great choice for reading along with kids. Parents who were children of the '80s (or wish they were) will appreciate the setting and period details. The secrets the main character, 11-year-old Alistair, keeps from his parents -- and the difficult places this leads him -- offer many opportunities for discussion. Alistair and his friend Fiona obsess about lost children and how they could have gone missing (the real-world and fantasy-world hypotheses are both disturbing: a deranged relative or a shadowy soul-stealer). Someone close to Alistair does go missing, and a character is shot. Plus, Alistair almost gets killed playing a game called "Jack in the Box," which involves hiding in a box on the road, praying a car will swerve in time. Halloween shenanigans lead to a fistfight, and playing with fireworks ends with a kid's fingers being blown off. A few characters are heavy smokers; one teen also drinks and keeps booze and cigarettes on hand in his truck. Infrequent crude language doesn't go beyond "badass" and "screw you." Sexual content sticks to a crush; there are some light kisses and a little bawdy boy talk.

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Teen, 13 years old Written by600kw0rm January 15, 2021

The Riverman

This book was really good, it was a bit confusing at first, with the different point of views (switching from first person to third person while the characters... Continue reading

What's the story?

Eleven-year-old Alistair had almost forgotten about his childhood friend Fiona until she shows up one day with a cassette tape (it's the '80s) and asks him to pen her biography. She thinks he has a creative mind and will understand her unbelievable tale of a place called Aquavania, a world she created out of her imagination. It exists next to other worlds created by other kids -- a world she thought was Utopia until someone tells her about the Riverman, a shadowy figure who steals children's souls, destroying the worlds they've created and taking them from the "Solid World" as well. Fiona's friend Chua went missing, and now she fears she's next. Alistair doesn't know what to think of this but isn't willing to believe in Aquavania. Instead, he becomes suspicious of Fiona's uncle, his vivid imagination finding numerous ways to implicate the man. Meanwhile, he develops feelings for Fiona and decides to protect her at any cost.

Is it any good?

Many readers will find THE RIVERMAN leaves too many mysteries for them to solve by the end, but all the surprise moments are worth it. Author Aaron Starmer excels at pacing and creating atmosphere, with a slow and steady buildup of tension. Readers slip right into the story's mood and its gray areas, real and imagined, as the main character remembers dark tales, including one of a wife who poisons her husband. The story's conclusion may be hard to believe, but it shows how dark ideas and too many secrets add up to dangerous situations.

Alistair as a main character is a big standout, too. He's complex, flawed, and very real. He's the kind of kid you root for and yell at when he gets things horribly wrong. But, just as how Alistair can't resist a ride in Kyle's car, readers won't be able to resist following him on his next misadventure.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about secrets. Are you like Alistair, a kid who keeps secrets? Do you ever regret keeping them for friends? When is it important not to keep a secret? What can be dangerous about it?

  • The Riverman leaves much to readers to figure out themselves, and plenty is still left unresolved. Do you like to read books with ambiguous endings? Do you think the next two books in the trilogy will explain all or keep you guessing?

  • What would your imaginary Aquavania world look like? Which friends' worlds would you most like to visit?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love fantasy and historical fiction

Themes & Topics

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