Are You Still There by Sarah Lynn Scheerger. September 1, 2015. AW Teen, 288 pages. Teen & up.
Gabriella Mallory is a parent's dream: straight-A honor student, athlete, community volunteer, and too focused on school to deal with dating or drama. Until the drama finds her.
First, a bomb threat which was all too real and left her hiding in the bathroom in fear for her life, and afraid for her sister Chloe and best friend Beth. Fortunately, the bomb was safely disarmed and no one was hurt, but the bomb-maker is still out there somewhere.
In response to the bomb incident, a drug overdose the year before, and the suicide of a student before that, the school decides to set up a peer hotline, staffed anonymously by students. Gabi is asked to be one of these students, and is a little bit surprised when she meets the others and finds how diverse the group is, with representatives of nearly every social group in the school. Despite their differences, the group begins to bond and Gabi finds herself forming close friendships with some of the others, and even begins dating one of the volunteers, Miguel, who comes from a very different world than Gabi.
But the bomb-maker is still out there, leaving clues for the police. But then he/she begins to involve Gabi in his "game", leaving clues in her locker and calling the helpline and only talking to her; somehow knowing she is one of the staffers, even though she uses a pseudonym and it is all supposed to be anonymous. At first Gabi is frightened, but then she feels compelled to try to help the bomber before he hurts himself or anyone else. Will she figure out his plan and his identity in time?
I found this to be a very compelling story, part who-dunnit and part anti-bullying statement, with a little romance and coming-of-age thrown in as Gabi starts to break out of her shell and figure out what SHE wants, rather than running on automatic and simply living up to everyone else's expectations of her. Gabi learns to move beyond her limited social circle and braves the dating game for the first time, having to re-negotiate her existing friendship and her relationships with her mother and sister, all the while trying to figure out who the bomber is and what his/her motives are before it's too late.
I loved the multi-faceted story and the fast-paced plot, and feel the book makes a strong statement about bullying without being too preachy, and makes points about breaking down boundaries between social groups and finding your own path in life as well. I also liked how journal entries by the bomber, written in free verse, were interspersed throughout the book, giving the reader a little firsthand insight into what he/she is thinking and feeling.
I think most teens and some tweens could relate to this story, seeing themselves and people they know among the characters, and it might make a great choice for a discussion group. I would suggest this book to all teens, but would especially recommend it for those who want realistic fiction with compelling stories about timely topics, and those with a particular interest in coming of age stories, psychological dramas, and stories dealing with bullying and school violence.
Other Books By This Author
The Opposite of Love, September 2014, is about a seemingly unlikely couple who have one thing in common, both coming from a troubled homelife , and also deals with serious teen issues most readers will be able to relate to.
She has also authored or co-authored several books for younger readers under the name "Sarah Lynn".