Unlocked by Ryan G Van Cleave

Andy is the son of a janitor, and that has given him a reputation and a nickname. Shaking that off isn’t easy, especially when you’re a freshman in high school and everyone seems to know exactly where they belong in the social hierarchy.

While there are a couple other loners in the school — Sue and Nicholas — it’s Blake that captures Andy’s attention and interest, and it’s not because he’s necessarily interested in being friends. No, Blake interests Andy because of a rumor he heard: that Blake had a gun in his locker.

It’s ultimately Becky Ann, the girl Andy has a mega crush on, who convinces Andy to steal the school’s keys from his father and check the situation out for himself. Is Blake a threat to the school? Does Andy get the girl after snooping in Blake’s locker?

Does Andy have an agenda for revenge on the school?

Unlocked, written in verse, is an extremely fast paced but surprising book on a topic that’s been tread quite a bit in recent years: school violence. Andy is an angry character, but because we’re given the story from his perspective, and because he’s kind enough to give us his impressions of other students experiencing social outcast like he is, we understand why he’s angry. We also know deep down he has a spot of goodness, even if he doesn’t want to admit to it himself. Van Cleave gives his main character and his story a strong voice, something that is essential to a story as short as this one, and he is consistent in his execution.

Andy’s got a strong desire to find a way to fit in, and though he is quick to judge the other “losers” in school, it’s obvious he wants a friend and he wants one bad. And despite being set up by Becky Ann to talk with Blake — a guy who scares him — he finds he and Blake have more in common than he could imagine. But as readers, we hope they don’t form a friendship. We know Blake’s problematic, both from Andy’s descriptions and from our own understanding of the situation the two of them are thrown into, and despite our interest in Andy socializing, this is bad news.

Andy won’t listen though. But he will surprise us.

Books in verse are hit and miss for me, since these stories need to have a real purpose for using verse. It can’t be used as a method without serving the story, and I’m a little mixed on whether it was effective in Van Cleave’s book. Andy’s story and perspective don’t have enough pulse behind them to merit a longer book or to merit standard prose, but I’m not entirely sure that the verse heightened or changed the story, either. The caveat to that is that this is the kind of book that will appeal to reluctant readers, particularly reluctant readers of verse novels. It’s a short book, and the fact it’s written as it is makes it read quickly. There’s not a lot of dwelling on unnecessary details, and we get just enough characterization in the story to make it move. Likewise, I think that this book has great guy appeal — besides the main character being male, there is more emphasis on action than on emotion, despite the fact this is a bit of an emotionally-intense book. But the emotion comes more on the reader’s side than on the story’s side. I don’t think there are enough books written in verse with guy appeal, and this one, despite some of the shortcomings of the structure, is a worthy entry into that category.

What I really enjoyed about Van Cleave’s story was it wasn’t entirely predictable. Because I’ve read a number of stories that tackle this topic, I had a prediction of how the story would play out, but Andy completely surprised me in the end. Throughout the story, I saw these glimpses of something different in his character, something that made him different from these other kids, and in the end, he proved this to me. This is the kind of book that almost begs for a rereading, simply because of the surprise ending; the clues are dropped throughout, and a second read would be rewarding in terms of unlocking them.

Unlocked would make a strong read alike to books such as Hate List by Jennifer Brown, as well as Jodi Picoult’s 19 Minutes and even Dave Cullen’s Columbine. In the past, I’ve talked the former three together, and I’ve found kids interested in one story want to read the rest of them as a means of understanding different perspectives. Van Cleave’s story will reach reluctant readers, as mention before, as well as those who enjoy fast-paced, realistic stories. Hand this one, too, to your kids who maybe find themselves in the outside of high school cliques, as it will make them feel they can make a difference and do matter in school.

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