We Didn't Ask for This

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
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Thought-provoking tale of eco-protest at elite high school.

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

Educational Value

Urgent messages about the destruction of coral reefs, what's causing it, and what practical measures might improve the situation. One of the characters is really into improv, and we learn a lot about the craft -- and using related skills in moments of crisis. The story is set in an unnamed tropical, seaside country with a large, varied international population, and there's lots of incidental detail about different cultures.

Positive Messages

Positive messages of empathy, generosity, diversity, giving joy to others, standing up for yourself. Also a strong subtext of cheerleading for the ends justifying the means in achieving your goal, i.e. if it's important enough to you, it's OK to harm others in the process if those are the tactics that work.

Positive Role Models & Representations

We Didn't Ask for This features an ensemble cast of characters with a lot of ethnic and cultural diversity (some characters are biracial, many are the children of expat or diplomatic parents, and most of them have lived in several countries), and two budding same-sex romances are essential to the plot. Party king Peejay smuggles all manner of booze and other contraband into the school, but much of his motivation has to do with making his older brother happy and generally spreading joy. Marisa is tenacious, determined, big on strategic thinking, charismatic, passionate about the coral reefs, and perfectly willing to cause other people however much trouble  it takes to get her demands met. Amira, torn between her beloved, traditional Muslim family and her own dreams, is strong, kind and protective. Celeste, a Black American teen whose parents have fled the social upheaval in the U.S., struggles to find her place, in the process becoming  stronger, kinder, and more supportive. Her excellent relationship with her parents is the envy of many other kids, especially Kenji, who befriends her and teaches her about improv.

Violence

Hundreds of students are held hostage against their will for over a week, but the only people who call this out as violent and bullying behavior are caricatured as entitled jerks, and the impact as nothing worse than fun deprivation. Several students, including the protest leader, sustain serious injuries resulting from various escape attempts. Offstage, a close relative of one of the characters dies from an injury at work.

Sex

Hormones are in the air, and a much-anticipated element of the annual lockdown event. Teen couples on the periphery make out, retire to secluded locations, etc. Strong attraction grows between a gay male lead character and another boy, and two teen girls realize they're in love. A teen couple takes all their clothes off and dances to music on headphones.

Language

Multiple uses of "f--k," "s--t," "piss," "goddamn," "damn." Peeing and pooping, especially in buckets because you've chained yourself to a door, are a recurring theme.

Consumerism

Mention of Tupperware containers.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Smuggling booze into the party -- and how to do so despite the protest -- is a central theme and involves much creativity. Alcohol flows freely among the teens with the adults none the wiser, thanks to strong peer pressure to not blow the whole thing with obvious drunken behavior. Occasional mentions of teens smoking cigarettes. When things go awry, parents who had been out partying while their kids spent the night at school are described as eating breath mints to hide their alcohol breath from their children when they're reunited. A nurse who's locked in with the kids administers a steady supply of painkillers when one of the teens suffers a broken leg.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that We Didn't Ask for This is YA novelist Adi Alsaid's lively take on edgy, impassioned activism, crushes, charisma, and determination, set in an international school for privileged kids located in an unnamed tropical country. Alsaid spins an engaging ensemble cast of ethnically and sexually diverse teens grappling with assorted coming-of-age issues at a much-anticipated annual lock-in night at the school. The event quickly becomes something else entirely when five of the teens, determined to stop the destruction of coral reefs, chain themselves to the doors and lock everyone up for real as they issue demands. There's not much diversity of viewpoint: The notion that this is anything other than heroic behavior on their part is only expressed by cartoonishy jerky characters, even as the hostage situation continues over a week. Meanwhile, everyone else -- students, teachers, school staff -- all either fall under leader Marisa's charismatic spell or find a way to make the best of the situation with booze, newfound romance, and other diversions. Several characters sustain serious injuries, including one that requires a steady series of painkillers from the (also imprisoned) school nurse. Frequent strong language includes "f--k," "s--t," and "piss," and there's a recurring theme of the protesters peeing and pooping in buckets. Two teen same-sex couples bond and fall in love, though more kisses are dreamed of than actually occur.

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What's the story?

WE DIDN'T ASK FOR THIS finds the high school students of Central International School in a state of frenzied anticipation as the revered tradition of annual lockdown night commences. Located in an unnamed tropical country and serving the children of diplomats, expats, and other rich and powerful types from around the world, the school spares no expense on sports, clubs, and activities, so there's plenty of fun in store for all. Celeste Rollins, the new girl and the child of Black parents who've left the troubled U.S. for a new country, just hopes this is the night she finally finds some people to click with and be friends. Peejay Singh, social god, has more grandiose plans--he's spent the whole year planning the epic, alcohol-fueled, and definitely clandestine party that goes on every year under the teachers' noses. Unbeknownst to either of them, Marisa Cuevas, smart, passionate, organized, and blessed with supportive parents, is determined to save coral reefs--and has put even more planning than Peejay into her own plans to keep everybody locked in the school till her demands are met.

Is it any good?

Captivity, conflict, charisma, creativity, and coral reefs make for unexpected events and intense bonding in Adi Alsaid's tale of lockdown, protest, and partying at an elite international school. We Didn't Ask for This presents an engaging ensemble cast of smart, cosmopolitan teens dealing with relatable issues (e.g. coming out, dealing with traditional parents when you aren't traditional, crushes, social pressures, fitting in...), suddenly confronted with new challenges as eco-zealous classmates take them prisoner in a protest. The narrative skews heavily to by-any-means-necessary cheerleading for the protesters and their cause, which may provoke thought and generate discussion about ethics and tactics.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the destruction of coral reefs, which inspired the protest in We Didn't Ask for This. What do you know about that situation? What's causing the destruction? Is anything helping to stop or reverse the damage?

  • Do you think holding people against their will to get something you want is OK if you're doing it for a cause and not just, say, a lot of money? Why do you see it that way?

  • What issue do you care enough about to try to change minds at your school? 

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love high school stories and activism tales

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