When Light Left Us

Book review by
Mary Cosola, Common Sense Media
When Light Left Us Book Poster Image
Dad leaves, alien takes over in slow emotional tale.

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A lot or a little?

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

Educational Value

Some information on American Sign Language. Insights into what life is like for kids on the autism spectrum and for gay teens.

Positive Messages

Even when family bonds seem weak, they are stronger than you think. Solid friendships are built on respect, trust, and understanding. You're not alone in the world; help is always available, even from people you might least expect it from.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Vasquez family members all have moments when they do or say hurtful things, but they are clearly good, caring people loved and supported by their friends. Each of the kids has troubled friendships, but they work through the problems, and the friendships come out stronger. Friends of the family go out of the way to help them, even risking their own lives. Positive representations of kids on the autism spectrum as well as kids who are gay and those who are deaf. 

Violence

Descriptions of a few instances of self-harm. Teen boy gets beaten severely on a basketball court. Another teen almost chokes a child and another teen to death. Several incidents of physical and verbal bullying. Car accident, with injuries described later but nothing graphic shown.

Sex

References to crushes and dating. Kissing and making out are mentioned but not described. In a flashback, a teen remembers waking up naked with another teen, but no sexual activity is mentioned or shown.

Language

Not a lot of swearing, but a few teen characters swear, including "f--k" and variations, "s--t" and variations, "a--hole," "bulls--t," "hell," "ass," "damn," "Christ,"  "Jesus," "God," "d--k," and "t-t." Verbal bullying includes name-calling ("retarded" and "f--got").

Consumerism

Brands mostly for scene setting. Chevy, Matchbox cars, SpaghettiOs, Cheetos, Lego, Dr. Pepper, Gatorade, Pocari Sweat, Corn Pops, McDonald's, Sprite, Burger King, Wendy's, Coke, and Dairy Queen. Halloween figures into the plot, and many candy brands are mentioned, including Snickers, Milky Way, Kit Kat, Smarties, Reese's Pieces, M&M's, Tootsie Rolls, Fruit Gushers, and Blow Pops.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Adults get tipsy at a party but have a designated driver. Adults drink a little wine at Thanksgiving. Reference to a teen girl getting black-out drunk and her friend calling 911. A down-on-her-luck adult is shown drunk and out of it.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that When Life Left Us is a coming-of-age sci-fi story about a family coping with their dad abandoning them and the arrival of an alien-like being who possesses the kids. Written by Leah Thomas (Because You'll Never Meet Me and Nowhere Near You), the story follows the daily lives of the Vasquez family and the way these events affect how they view themselves, one another, and the world around them. The story has positive portrayals of gay and deaf characters and those on the autism spectrum. Themes of love, trust, and self-knowledge dominate the plot. There's some violence, mostly told in flashback, and a little drinking. A few of the teen characters swear ("f--k," "s--t," and "a--holes"), but it reads like a realistic take on the way many teens talk. The book offers good discussion topics around how families deal with trauma and what it's like to be different as a kid.

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What's the story?

In WHEN LIGHT LEFT US, the Vasquez family lives on the edge of vast, uninhabitable Nameless Canyon. A few years after their father walks out on the family, the youngest Vasquez kid, Milo, is drawn into the canyon by shimmering lights. His siblings -- Ana and Hank -- run down to rescue him from the potentially deadly terrain. There they encounter an alien presence that swarms them and infects their bodies and personalities. When this presence finally leaves them, it leaves behind physical and emotional after-effects that impact their relationships with each other and their friends. The kids slowly begin to put themselves back together, but not without some drama and surprises.

Is it any good?

An absent dad and a visiting alien rock the world of the Vasquez family in this slow-building and sometimes bewildering coming-of-age sci-fi novel. The first third of When Light Left Us is confusing and takes far too long to get to the meat of the story. Author Leah Thomas opts for a measured lead-up to the big alien event that changed the Vasquez family forever, but instead of creating suspense, she only perplexes the reader. The Vasquez kids are possessed by an alien presence, but we don't get any details on what happened or their interaction with it until after the halfway point. Each chapter is told from a different character's point of view, and many of the chapters include flashbacks, which adds to the plodding pace. This is becoming a hallmark of Thomas' writing: slow story, then a lot of action out of nowhere at the very end. This story did not need the 400 pages it took to tell it. 

Once the book picks up past the midpoint, Thomas gives her readers more to think about, in terms of trauma, friendships, and family. By viewing themselves though the alien's perspective, the Vasquez kids see the beauty in the chaos of humanity. Thomas also gets points for giving Maggie, the mom, her own chapters. Not many YA books let kids see things from a parent's point of view. Her worries, exhaustion, and regrets are realistically presented.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the way the Vasquez family responds to trauma in When Light Left Us. Do upsetting or traumatic events tend to bring your family closer together or drive you apart?

  • Has anyone you've known changed suddenly? Why did this happen? How did you respond?

  • Have there been times when you've been going through something you thought friends wouldn't understand only to be surprised by how supportive they were?

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