Book review by
Carrie R. Wheadon, Common Sense Media
Unraveling Book Poster Image
Sci-fi romance full of strong language, mature themes.

Parents say

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Kids say

age 15+
Based on 2 reviews

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A lot or a little?

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

Educational Value

Introduces some real physics theories before crossing over into sci-fi territory. Classic novel The Great Gatsby is discussed and quoted.

Positive Messages

Family loyalty and love are big themes, keeping families like Janelle's together despite the pain of mental illness and loss and driving three boys to do everything they can to get home to their families.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Janelle is the child of one mentally ill parent and another workaholic parent. While she admits that she resents the extra responsibility, she continues to be caretaker for everyone, even raising her little brother. But she withholds important information from the FBI to protect her friends, possibly endangering the world in the process. Ben breaks into the school database to change friends' schedules but draws the line at changing grades.


Two key characters die from gunshots, one early enough in the book that Janelle describes the feeling of loss often and in detail. FBI agents and teens wave and shoot guns. People are found dead with radiation burns, described as so bad that it looks as though their bones have melted. Janelle is hit by a truck, knows she's dead, but then is healed by Ben. A giant earthquake hits, and the aftermath is described -- many people are missing and feared dead. Janelle recalls being drugged at a party a couple years before and waking up with her underwear ripped; she eventually finds out who almost raped her. Janelle beats up that boy, and teen boys get beaten up on other occasions. Janelle's mentally ill mother gets enraged and trashes the house.


Passionate kisses and groping between Janelle and Ben are described. The night they spend together isn't described.


Lots of "f--k"s are thrown about by FBI agents and teens. And there's a healthy helping of everything else as well, the worst being "bitch," written on Janelle's car windshield (her tires are also slashed) and plenty of sexualized language.


Mentions of establishments like Chili's and Whole Foods, and Janelle and her brother spend a day at Disneyland. The X-Files gets a big plug, and a handful of movies, such as Total Recall and Wall Street, get quick mentions.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Janelle remembers being slipped drugs in a beer at a party a couple years before, with bad consequences. Lots of teens drink heavily at parties, with mentions of fights breaking out. (Janelle calls her dad for a ride one night.) Ben's crowd is known as the stoners, but Janelle notes surprise that Ben doesn't smell like pot.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Unraveling is a sci-fi romance that's definitely meant for mature teens. It has some of the same scares as an X-Files episode (bodies found charred, and the main character coming back from the dead) and a disaster movie (giant earthquakes and an end-of-the-world scenario) mixed with lots of swearing ("f--k") and teen drinking. Add to that mature themes like dealing with a parent's mental illness and near date rape. And then add to that a big loss for the main character, Janelle, whom readers will admire for how smart she is and what maturity it must take to manage school, raise her younger brother, and keep her home together while her mother is ill.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say

There aren't any reviews yet. Be the first to review this title.

Teen, 14 years old Written byBookgeek59 April 28, 2015

Worth a read

This is a sci fi romance that has an intriguing plot and interesting story. However, although the main character is a role model, other characters are lost slig... Continue reading
Teen, 15 years old Written byJflores14 July 31, 2014

Great plot, interesting,and profane

This great sci-fi thriller is amazing and intense but language makes this a OLDER TEENS ONLY BOOK!
SEX- making out, tongues in each other's mouths... Continue reading

What's the story?

Running home from the beach, Janelle gets hit by a truck and dies. She's sure she's dead until classmate Ben Michaels lays hands on her and re-fuses her spine. At the hospital, the doctors can't figure out how she's alive, and she's determined to get to the bottom of Ben's mysterious healing gift. With a top FBI agent for a dad (who also shares her X-Files obsession), Janelle is able to almost believe Ben when he finally explains it to her. While very dateable, he's definitely not a native Californian, and neither are two of his friends. Meanwhile, Janelle's dad has a bigger mystery on his hands: charred bodies and a possible bomb with a countdown attached. Janelle sees some of the bodies for herself and starts snooping. Could the countdown, the bodies, and her new crush be connected?

Is it any good?

There's plenty of drama in UNRAVELING, with catastrophic earthquakes, a near-death experience, and high school horrors like near-date rape, slashed tires, and break-ups. And, of course, the countdown to the end of the world. At the center of it all is Janelle, a trained lifeguard who can wield a gun, keep her dysfunctional family functioning, and put clues together almost as well as her FBI agent dad. These elements will keep readers riveted.

But add those elements together, and there's often too much going on. The sci-fi part of the story suffers the most, with some hasty explanations of big concepts (no spoilers here!). And some of the high school and family drama takes away from the drama of the final countdown. Still, author Elizabeth Norris will draw plenty of readers in with her ambitious first novel.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about what drew you to Unraveling. Was it the sci-fi storyline, the romance, or both?

  • Why do you think young adult books with end-of-the-world scenarios are so popular? How is this story different from others you've read?

  • Do you think all the swearing and teen drinking in Unraveling makes the story seem more real, mimicking real high schoolers' speech and behavior? Or is it over the top and distracting? Is there strong language in the books you normally read?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love science fiction and fantasy

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