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Unclaimed Baggage

Book review by
Andrea Beach, Common Sense Media
Unclaimed Baggage Book Poster Image
Sweet romance underscores bonds of friendship.

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A lot or a little?

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

Educational Value

Some cultural insights into small-town life in Alabama; some brief history behind the real-life Unclaimed Baggage chain of stores.

Positive Messages

Solid, strong bonds of friendship are worth holding on to and are what will see you through tough times. Wanting something doesn't change anything, but it's important to have goals and desires -- that's first step in achieving them, making things happen. Unfair, even bad things happen sometimes; you have to learn how to deal with them when they do. Having friends, loved ones to lean on helps. Just because you did something bad doesn't mean you're a bad person. The truth is always going to be discovered anyway, so there's no use hiding from it.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Doris wants to be a positive force in the world, bring people together. Her self-confidence allows her to call people out when they're being mean or unjust. Nell thinks all she wants is to love someone, be loved, but she learns the value of real friendship and loyalty. Grant was living the all-American dream and lost it all; he has a drinking problem, tries to overcome it with help of friends and eventually accepts professional help too. Both Grant and Nell are good older-sibling models.

Violence

A past sexual assault by a middle school classmate is remembered, mentioning kissing, grabbing body parts, having a "boy grip" on her wrists, and a swimsuit top being halfway down. A fight mentions hitting, a crunching sound, a bleeding mouth, a swelling eye. Two teens punch each other.

Sex

A few brief kisses aren't described in detail. Emotional and physical feelings of attraction are mentioned or briefly described. Teens find a sex toy, talk about losing their virginity, see a couple making out. Having a threesome is mentioned along with stopping a situation that's "getting sexy."

Language

Infrequent strong language includes "s--thead," "d--k" (body part), "f---ing," "f--k you," "p---y" (name calling), "a--hole," "Oreo" (racial slur), "lib-tard," "lesbos," "crap," "hell," "damn," "dammit," "penis" (talking about a sex toy), "poop," "dildo."

Consumerism

Lots of food, snack, beverage, tech, and popular music products to establish location and character.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

One of three main characters is an alcoholic whose life is drastically changed after drunk-driving crash. He eventually gets help. Alcohol, marijuana use by teens and young adults is normalized, especially in context of it's just boys letting off steam. Grant's alcoholism and the trouble he causes show consequences. There's lots of smoke in a room at a party.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Unclaimed Baggage is a mild romance with an emphasis on how the bonds of friendship can help you through tough times. Spoiler alert: One of the characters recalls being sexually assaulted by a middle school classmate, and blaming the victim and "boys will be boys" attitudes are explored. The only other violence is a fight that mentions punching, crunching sounds, and a bleeding mouth. Profanity isn't frequent but it is strong and includes "f--k," "d--k," "p---y," and "s--t." Sexual content is pretty mild, with a few kisses and feelings of attraction. Teens find a sex toy and talk about it while deciding what to do with it (they don't use it). They sleep in the same tent and one mentions a threesome. Alcohol and marijuana are pretty widespread at parties, and a major theme is Grant's alcoholism, how it affects him and his life, and how he deals with it.

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What's the story?

Three teens discover that just about everyone has UNCLAIMED BAGGAGE weighing them down. Doris is still mourning the loss of her aunt, the only person who really understood her and encouraged her to experience the world beyond their small, conservative town in Alabama. Nell misses her life in Illinois, which was finally coming together with good friends and an even better boyfriend, after her mom's career forces a move to the same small Alabama town. As the quarterback who led the high school team to victory, Grant is living the all-American dream at the very top of his football-obsessed town, until he crashes his car while drunk and loses it all. These three teens come together at their summer job in a store that sells things in unclaimed suitcases from around the world. As their bonds of friendship (and maybe even love?) grow stronger, they learn what they can, and what they shouldn't, leave unclaimed themselves.

Is it any good?

Romance fans are sure to enjoy this sweet but slightly flawed, breezy summer story that refreshingly emphasizes strong bonds of friendship rather than laser-focusing on the love story. It starts out a little slow, with a clunky introduction of the three main characters, and once they're established, the story moves pretty predictably to the upbeat, hopeful end.

But teens will easily relate to the characters, all of whom are admirable in some ways yet flawed in others, as they learn how to claim their own emotional baggage without letting it weigh them down. Minor characters are colorfully portrayed, but the main antagonist is a bit of a stereotypical "church lady." Teens will also appreciate how Doris, Nell, and Grant struggle with past trauma and alcohol abuse and come to learn what real love is, and most especially how your friends help you through and make you a better person.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about Grant's alcoholism in Unclaimed Baggage. Is it realistic? What about how he realizes he has a problem, and then how he deals with it? Do  you know anyone with a drinking problem? How do they handle it, if they handle it?

  • What about the use of strong language? Is it overdone, or does it seem realistic? What's the big deal about swear words, whether in books, movies, games, or on TV?

  • What kind of role models are Doris, Nell, and Grant? Do you like all three characters? What do you admire about them? What are their flaws?

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For kids who love friendship tales and stories of the importance of consent

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