Anyone who's been reading my reviews long knows that I lean old-fashioned in my reading. Give me the historicals, the old-fashioned fantasies, the "timeless" contemporary stories, and I'm in book heaven. Today I'm reviewing something totally different from my usual taste in books—but I have to mention all that because it speaks to how dang good this book is.
What Happened to Rachel Riley? is thoroughly, decidedly contemporary. The story is told through transcripts of a podcast recording, emails, and texts. Any reader who has ever complained, "Why don't the kids have cell phones? Everyone has cell phones now!" will find herself totally satisfied here. As you might guess from the previous paragraph, I am not one of those readers. But Claire Swinarski pulled me into her story so masterfully that I didn't care. I enjoyed the novelty of the unique style without ever finding it gimmicky. I felt I knew each and every character, and the sense of place was clear and vivid—and considering the style, I found this particularly impressive.
Before I go on, here's the publisher's description:
In this engrossing and inventive contemporary middle grade novel that's Where'd You Go Bernadette? with a #MeToo message, an eighth grader uses social media posts, passed notes, and other clues to find out why a formerly popular girl is now the pariah of her new school.
Anna Hunt may be the new girl at East Middle School, but she can already tell there’s something off about her eighth-grade class. Rachel Riley, who just last year was one of the most popular girls in school, has become a social outcast. But no one, including Rachel Riley herself, will tell Anna why.
As a die-hard podcast enthusiast, Anna knows there’s always more to a story than meets the eye. So she decides to put her fact-seeking skills to the test and create her own podcast around the question that won’t stop running through her head: What happened to Rachel Riley?
With the entire eighth grade working against her, Anna dives headfirst into the evidence. Clue after clue, the mystery widens, painting an even more complex story than Anna could have anticipated. But there’s one thing she’s certain of: If you’re going to ask a complicated question, you better be prepared for the fallout that may come with the answer.
Here's another thing about me: I'm generally unenthusiastic about "issue" books. I find that poorly developed plots often hide behind the issue being discussed, weakening both the story and the message itself. Again, I'm saying this because that's not the case here. What Happened to Rachel Riley? is a story about sexual harassment—but first and foremost it's a story. If you think about it, lots of great books are issue books, but we forget about that because they're just telling the character's story. In this case, Anna's journey as a character and her drive to solve the mystery will keep you totally engrossed throughout.
I'd like to note that while this book is advertised for ages 8 and up, I think I'd generally wait until readers are the age of the protagonist or so (12-13). I was very comfortable handing it to my young teens, but parents will know best what is appropriate for their child—it's worth a pre-read because 1) you'll love it, and 2) it's such a perfect book for creating meaningful and important conversations that you might as well make a parent-child book club out of it, like I did with my daughters.
What Happened to Rachel Riley? comes out early in the new year, but you can pre-order it now! Thanks to the author for providing me a review copy.
For more Marvelous Middle Grade Monday recommendations, check out Always in the Middle!