The Serpent King

Book review by
Sandie Angulo Chen, Common Sense Media
The Serpent King Book Poster Image
Poignant story of friends, faith, first love in rural South.

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Kids say

age 13+
Based on 2 reviews

A lot or a little?

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

Educational Value

Readers will learn about Tennessee; the origins of the town's name being derived from Nathan Bedford Forrest, founder of the Ku Klux Klan; and about Dolly Parton, whom Lydia idolizes. The book also explores the branch of fundamentalist Christianity called Signs Pentecostals, in which members drink poison and handle snakes. The story will also teach readers about fashion, fashion designers, and why to some people, buying unique thrift-store pieces is more stylish than buying mass-produced mall apparel.

Positive Messages

The close friends and first loves of your youth change you in a meaningful way that stays with you for the rest of your life. A life well-lived can be measured by those who remember you and keep you in their heart. Parents should ideally be honored and respected, but ultimately your life is your own. Faith can manifest in different ways to different people. Look beyond your prejudices. There's no shame in living a quiet life in a small town.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Lydia's parents are loving, understanding, and kind. They try to make sure Lydia doesn't look down on her upbringing; they purposely chose to raise her in a small town. Lydia wants what's best for her and her friends, even if that means they'll go their separate ways at the end of school. Dill is a deep thinker who worries about being pulled in by an inherited overwhelming darkness or his parents' expectations. Travis is a gentle giant who loves his mom, his friends, and his books.

Violence

A character dies from a gunshot wound. A father is abusive and hits his son and wife. The father and son get into a fight that leads to the father hitting his son with a belt again and again. A character is depressed and has suicidal thoughts. Dill's family goes to a Pentecostal church where they drink poison (strychnine) and handle venomous snakes such as copperheads as part of their religious worship. Students pick on Dill and Lydia, occasionally physically in Dill's case. Travis has had a couple of fights with other students -- usually to defend Dill.

Sex

Travis flirts with Amelia via text and social media. They send selfies (nothing inappropriate) and all but call each other boyfriend and girlfriend. Dill has obvious feelings for Lydia, but he believes them to be unrequited. There's some passionate kissing and making out (occasionally lying down) but no sex. 

Language

Occasional strong language includes "f--k," "s--t," "a--hole," "bitch," "douche." Racial slurs and personal insults include "wetback," "dyke," "faggot," "fairy," "beaner" (almost always said by an adult).

Consumerism

Car brands mentioned, including Toyota Prius. Lydia mentions many real-life fashion designers and brands, including Rodarte and Rick Owens.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Teens drink at a get-together.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Serpent King is a realistic contemporary novel by musician-turned-novelist Jeff Zentner. The heartrending story focuses on three high school seniors and best friends in rural Tennessee: They're unpopular but intelligent, creative, caring, and loyal to one another. The book deals with mature subjects such as domestic abuse, poverty, grief, religious fundamentalism, imprisoned parents, and the idea that for some teens, college doesn't seem like an option. The three main characters all use social media for different means: to express themselves creatively, to connect with other hard-core fans of a favorite book series, and to break stereotypes about rural kids not having any style. There's some violence, including an armed robbery, fistfights, domestic abuse by a husband and father, and references to a couple of deaths -- one a suicide, one a murder -- as well as occasional strong language ("s--t," "a--hole," "f--k," racial slurs and insults). The romance is slow-burning, and the themes are thought-provoking and ideal for parent-teen conversations about everything from college to faith to social media use to first love.

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Teen, 14 years old Written byTovah B. May 18, 2017

Incredible with a tearjerker part

This was an incredible debut novel. I loved it. This next part is a sort-of-spoiler so don't read on if you want to read the book with a totally clean mi... Continue reading
Teen, 14 years old Written byMayberry June 15, 2018

The Serpent King

I love this book. It shows what life could be like when your dad is in jail and your mom doesn't support you. It shows great friendship ties.

What's the story?

Set in rural Tennessee, THE SERPENT KING follows three misfit best friends who stand out in their otherwise homogenous small town of Forrestville, Tennessee, for a variety of reasons. Lydia is a precocious, relatively wealthy "Internet-famous" fashion blogger with college-educated parents and a big-city future; Travis is linebacker-sized, but instead of being a football player like his father and dead brother he carries a staff and obsesses about a fantasy series; and singer-songwriter Dill is named after his snake-handling preacher of a father, who's in prison for having a secret stash of online child pornography. As their senior year begins, they each deal with having one foot in school and one in the quickly approaching future. Travis finds romance on a fan site's message boards, his only escape from an abusive home life; Lydia devotes herself to sustaining her blog -- her ticket to NYU; and Dill struggles with his soul-crushing fundamentalist parents, as well as the impending doom that Lydia, with whom he's not-so-secretly in love, will go away for good at the end of the year.

Is it any good?

Heartbreaking and heartfelt, this gorgeously written coming-of-age novel is an authentic look at life in a rural town for three teens trying to escape the weight of poverty, abuse, and prejudice. It's no surprise that debut author Jeff Zentner is also a professional musician -- a guitarist, singer, and songwriter -- because the language is lush and lyrical, with angsty Dill in particular being a thinker of deep philosophical musings about his poisoned bloodline, his overwhelming and seemingly unrequited love for Lydia, and his changing faith. Lydia isn't perfect; she's a bit of a cultural snob who can't wait to flee to the streets of New York City with worldly young fashionistas and celebrities who follow her popular blog Dollywould (after her idol and fellow Tennesseean Dolly Parton). But she also knows how lucky she is to have found Dill and Travis and how their friendship saved her from being a lonely outcast (her professional parents are considerably more well off than most in Forrestville). Lydia's flaws make her that much more realistic, just as Travis' impressive size belies a geeky devotion to a Game of Thrones-like fandom, and a gentleness with his mama create a character who's so unique and lovable that you'll ache for him when his father hurls insults his way.  

Despite the alternating third-person points of view among the three best friends, the title and the story ultimately belong to Dill. Plagued with a name belonging to a grandfather and a father who've both surrendered to darkness (grief in his grandfather's case; faith and child pornography in his father's case), only child Dill is crushed by the bleakness of his future. His put-upon mother demands that he take a full-time job to settle his father's considerable legal fees, making sure to assert that it's his duty to honor his parents and pay off their debts. Meanwhile, at least fanboy Travis has Amelia and his books for escape, and Lydia has a future being a young fashion maven. Dill's existential ennui and depression at the thought of losing Lydia takes up a lot of space in the story, but don't despair -- hope is there in the form of a song and a touch. Zentner's story is at times difficult to read, but even in the darkest of moments, the unconditional friendship among Dill, Lydia, and Travis is full of light, love, and laughter.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how Lydia's social media use. How common is it for teens to be "Internet-famous" or to be active bloggers or vloggers who share their opinions and lives online? 

  • Discuss how the book portrays small-town, rural life. Why is it such a tough place to be for Lydia but not Travis? What challenges does Dill face because of his family?

  • What are the consequences of staying silent about abuse? What could have the characters done differently in terms of dealing with domestic abuse?

  • Talk about the various forms of prejudice portrayed in the book. Do you think people judge others not only by race and ethnicity but also by geographic location and where they grew up? What does Lydia mean by the fact she's the "Dill" of her New York City friends?

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