A List of Cages
by Robin Roe
” Hate ricochets, but kindness does too. “
Adam Blake is the boy that all girls dream of being with and all boys dream of being. He’s handsome in that wonderfully unassuming way that so few teenage boys tend to be . . . there is nothing cocky about Adam. He’s self-deprecating, gently honest, and full of a certain spark of joy that spreads like wildfire. He has a close-knit group of friends that hit all areas of the spectrum in a beautiful rainbow: the moody jock, an effervescent pixie, one starkly classic beauty, and a musical hipster. Pieces of his friends all help to make up who Adam is on the inside, and along with his amazing and supportive mother and his lingering ADHD, he is a shining star in a sea of darkness.
Julian is the polar opposite, all dark instead of light. Awkward and insecure in his own skin, he spends his time at high school desperately trying to disappear by melting into the background. On the rare occasions when he does show up to class, Julian is picked on mercilessly by the other kids; his flaws and differences are cruelly laid bare like an open wound for all of his peers to see. He has no idea how to fit in; his social skills and tastes were stunted at a young age, making it even harder for him to find a common ground around the other kids his age. Julian finds it’s just easier to give up than keep trying. He can’t ever seem to do anything right anyway.
The one thing Adam and Julian do have in common is a brief blip of their childhood that was spent together. Adam was assigned a few weekdays to tutoring Julian in reading, and he can remember how impressed he was by the younger boy’s writing. While nowhere close to perfect, Julian had a way of creating a story that bordered on the edges of magic. He had real skill in twisting a plot and characters into a molded piece of art. Bonding together over their struggles (Adam’s ADHD and Julian’s dyslexia), the boys became tentative friends at first, but when Julian’s parents were suddenly killed in a horrific accident and he was brought to live with Adam until a more permanent situation could be found, the trust between the boys beautifully thickened like setting cement. Julian had found a safe place to land among the onslaught of thorns in his disastrously disrupted life. He’d lost his parents – the two people who meant more to him than anything else – but he had gained friendship and acceptance.
But that was years ago, so long in the past that Julian can barely remember what it felt like to feel loved. Months after settling into life with Adam and his mother, young Julian was ripped away and sent to live with his uncle. Russell’s home is nothing like the warm and inviting space Adam’s mom had created for him. There are no kind words spoken, no thoughtful affections offered. In fact, other than the fact that he has a bed to lay down in at night and a few square meals a week, there is nothing good about living with Russell. Julian doesn’t even have clothes that fit him, something that further mars him and solidifies his place as an easy target amongst the bullies at school. Russell is rigid and physically abusive when he deems it necessary to be around, and his ways of punishing are demeaning and medieval. Instead of a secure and loving environment where he can thrive and grow properly, Julian is locked in a veritable cage of neglect with no way out, a cage that only feeds his ever-growing despair and insecurity.
When Adam, serving as an aide to the school’s psychologist, is tasked with bringing Julian in to weekly therapy sessions, the boys begin to reconnect. At first, it’s painfully embarrassing for Julian to be around the vibrant young man that knows his secrets, and he has trouble basking in the glow that is Adam. The older boy is everything that Julian is not, and for a short time it magnifies his self-doubt. But as the weeks roll by and establish a quiet routine, Julian begins to become more comfortable – something that is increasingly easy to do when spending time with the playful and puppy-dog-esque Adam. The boys begin to open up to one another, and Adam brings the younger boy into his fold of friends, pushing aside Julian’s propensity for shyness and isolation with a welcoming smile and a seat at the table. And like all those years before, Julian slowly begins to feel as if he belongs . . . as if he isn’t in a cage.
It doesn’t take long for Julian to build a modicum of confidence and self-respect, and the result is a confrontation with Russell that may prove to be the last. When the strings of a precarious and fragile sense of being are slashed, can the pieces be sewn back together? Is Julian destined to remain in a cage? Or can he break free and fly to the stars?
A List of Cages is the debut novel by Robin Roe, a Dallas transplant and a high school special education teacher. This book hit me like a ton of bricks, if I’m being completely honest. There were several times that I had to put it down and take a breather – it is that raw and touching. The juxtaposition between Adam and Julian’s lives and personalities is carefully honed and razor-sharp, and the way that the story unfolds through their own narratives only intensifies the subject matter and their friendship. Julian is one of the most honest characters I’ve seen written in a mid-grade/YA contemporary novel, and his emotions were so full of depth and color that it made it difficult to continue on the journey with him as his abuses came to light. He is so fragile, yet so incredibly strong at the same time, and his amazement and trepidation at being included into Adam’s life was something that left me feeling so emotionally spent at the end. I think we all know what it feels like to not fit in and how hard being a changing teenager can be, and adding terrible abuses into that scenario made this particular novel sit on my chest for days after finishing it.
Adam is like a breath of fresh air, and remarkably never comes across as annoying or interfering. His character is relatable and one to be admired; I can see how everyone like Adam. He’s funny and self-deprecating, but above all else, Adam is just himself. It is a beautiful thing when a person can sit in their own skin so comfortably and without reservations, and so unusual for a young man his age. His transition from jovial friend to stoic guardian in the case of Julian was seamless. His relationships with his friends help to counteract his perfectness, and I was particularly impressed and intrigued by the realistic way his friend Charlie was drawn. It is apparent that Roe knows what she’s talking about when it comes to this age bracket, and it’s no wonder A List of Cages is receiving accolades from everyone who reads it.
A List of Cages is a young adult novel that I give 5 out of 5 stars to, and recommend to readers ages 13+. The scenes portraying abuse are carefully and appropriately written without losing any of the impact, and I encourage parents to read this book as well so that they can discuss it with their children. With staggering statistics like 1 out of every 4 children receiving some type of life-altering abuse (and in one study, 80% of those abused met the criteria for at least one psychological disorder), it behooves adults, teenagers, and children alike to become educated on the signs and prolific in the act of kindness and the showing of acceptance and empathy.
” And I see at once – all the things that have kept me trapped. Not just Russell, but me – my fears.
Afraid of talking.
Afraid of trying.
Afraid of wanting.
Afraid of dreaming.
Thinking about the people I’ve lost – and afraid of losing more.
The counselor pushes until a few kids mutter answers. They pretend not to care, but they do, and like me they already know the answer to her questions. Soon their responses are rapid-fire. Drugs pills parents teachers him her fear friends me me me.
The things I know stay in my head as I stand on my own two feet at the end of the day, and I walk back to my room with my journal to write my list of cages. “