Published by Disney-Hyperion on January 10, 2017
Genres: YA, YA Contemporary
Source: YA Books Central
When Adam Blake lands the best elective ever in his senior year, serving as an aide to the school psychologist, he thinks he’s got it made. Sure, it means a lot of sitting around, which isn’t easy for a guy with ADHD, but he can’t complain, since he gets to spend the period texting all his friends. Then the doctor asks him to track down the troubled freshman who keeps dodging her, and Adam discovers that the boy is Julian—the foster brother he hasn’t seen in five years.
Adam is ecstatic to be reunited. At first, Julian seems like the boy he once knew. He’s still kindhearted. He still writes stories and loves picture books meant for little kids. But as they spend more time together, Adam realizes that Julian is keeping secrets, like where he hides during the middle of the day, and what’s really going on inside his house. Adam is determined to help him, but his involvement could cost both boys their lives…
Diversity Rating: 1 – Tokenism
Racial-Ethnic: 2 (two of Adam’s friends are black)
Disability: 2 (Adam has ADHD)
Intersectionality: 0 (though Julian is viciously abused by his uncle and both he and Adam develop PTSD later on, it doesn’t quite fit as disability rep)
I still do my best to avoid YA books with male narrators simply because books written by and/or about guys often get the most marketing and the most awards buzz. See: John Green, Andrew Smith, Jeff Zentner, Jay Kristoff, Pierce Brown. Even though YA is dominated by women, it’s still the men who reap the most benefits because that’s how systemic sexism rolls. Naturally, I’m not worried about giving those guys unpaid, labor-intensive marketing via my reviews and try to focus on the girls and women of YA instead. Well, A List of Cages mixes it up a bit with a female author and two male narrators. It’s… good. Misery Lit to the highest degree, but good.
They were foster brothers once upon a time when Julian’s parents died in a car accident and Adam’s social worker mother temporarily took him in, Adam and Julian are very different boys. Julian is a dyslexic kid who’s heavily drawn into his shell but absolutely loves stories; Adam is Mr. Popular with so many friends that readers will only remember maybe two of them. They haven’t interacted since Julian’s uncle took him away, but when Adam’s position as the school psychologist’s student aide brings him back into orbit with Julian, he’s determined to bring the kid out of his shell.
Not that easy, though. Julian’s uncle Russell is absolutely vicious, whipping Julian over the smallest infractions and telling him that Adam and his mom purposefully gave him up for hanging up art in his bedroom. YEP, REALLY. Russell rarely deigns to justify himself to Julian and thus the reader, but he lets it slip that his own father raised him the same way so that he’d become a Man instead of staying a boy forever. Through moments like this, Roe criticizes toxic masculinity that says boys can’t be artists or cry and men can’t respect others feelings or show any weakness.
In small ways, both Adam and Julian reminded me of myself, which further helped me connect to two boys who are already made lifelike by Roe’s hand. Julian’s utter wasteland of a life–living with an uncle who won’t even let the kid bring friends over, being bullied at school, eating lunch in his own little hidey hole at the school–motivates Adam to do his best for his former foster brother. Once he starts including Julian in anything he does with his friends, Adam actually gets somewhere!
Then Julian gets locked in a suitcase/trunk for about half the novel because Russell has had enough of him. It’s exactly as bad as it sounds.
For the second half of the novel while Julian is locked up, the book fully reveals itself as Misery Lit, also referred to as “tragedy porn” or “misery porn.” The line between a book about tragic events and Misery Lit isn’t an easy one to define, but it typically relies on what you’re getting out of it. Are you learning about the event in a sensitive way or is it more of a voyeuristic experience as you watch someone go through the absolute worst things possible? A List of Cages feels much more like the latter because it’s so overtly voyeuristic it’s borderline unreadable at times.
The novel’s conclusion isn’t very satisfying either. Julian is in a happier place and doing much better, but Adam is pretty much wrecked because of the condition he found Julian in and his guilt about what he could have done to prevent it from happening. It seems as though Julian’s life got better at the cost of Adam’s life getting worse by bearing witness to Julian’s nightmare.
Memoirs like Mommie Dearest and David Pelzer’s classic A Child Called It would pair well with A List of Cages and teens will devour it if they dream of being social workers one day. If they can’t handle what’s in this book, it’ll save them from one of the toughest, burnout-heavy professions in existence!