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Book Review: Just Call My Name by Holly Goldberg Sloan

Any fan of Joss Whedon knows that one of the core concepts of his storytelling is the notion of the chosen family. There are the families that we are born into, and there are the families that we choose, that find us. In Buffy, it was the Scooby gang. In Firelfy it was the crew of Serentiy. And when the Avengers assembled, well, they were making for themselves not just a rag tag team of superheroes, but a group that has the potential to become a chosen family.

In Counting by 7s, author Holly Goldberg Sloan used the concept of the chosen family with brilliant results. And the concept comes up in her newest title, Just Call My Name.

Just call my name and I’ll be there . . . The Jackson Five

Sam and Riddle Border are foster kids living with the Bell family. Their father is behind bars, an abusive and deadly psychopath who doesn’t like the fact that his two boys are moving on without him. Sam and Emily are dating, Sam is starting to take some college classes, and things look like they are moving in positive directions for all.

Then, just as a hot wind turns on a dime, so does good fortune.

First, Destiny shows up. Like Sam, she is the motherless child of a man who sits in jail. So she has learned how to survive on her own. When she meets Sam, she sees a kindred spirit, their stories are so similar after all. But she also sees something else, these kids seem to have something that a life moving from barely surviving situation to barely surviving situation doesn’t seem to offer. What she sees in them is not only opportunity, but perhaps a sense of belonging she never could have imagined. Of course she is going to play a lot of games to try and make the situation turn in her favor; Destiny knows how to manipulate a situation.

Clarence Border also gets a voice in this story, as many of the alternating chapters are his story to tell. Step into the mind of a brilliant though definitely scary madman. You’ll see him orchestrate his escape from prison. You’ll hear his most innermost thoughts as he makes the slow, steady journey to punish his boys for their ultimate betrayal. You’ll hear every inner most thought as he tells you what he is doing and why, and marvel at how brilliantly a con man can analyze a situation and bend it in his favor. Clarence’s mind is a disturbing mind to walk through, but it is truly fascinating.

Then, in one chilling moment, where emotions run high, feelings are hurt, and communication has broken down, all the story elements come together in a life threatening situation for many of our teens. Sloan does this amazing little dance of tension, bringing all the story points together until they explode. Then the race is on, and a thrilling race it is, a race in which our characters must navigate intense emotions, hard truths, and rise to the occasion because failure will tear this made up family apart.

Sloan manages to deftly write those moments – the little ones – where little shifts are made. One small decision can be like pivoting on the balls of your feet while walking down the sidewalk; one moment you think you are headed in one direction but you notice a stolen glance or you let a moment of jealousy enter into your heart and you don’t realize you are making the tiniest little pivot in your direction. If you make enough of these little pivots, one day you’ll look up and realize you are heading in the wrong direction entirely. The first half of this book was all about these relationship dynamics, about friendship and family. Destiny plots to steal Sam, Emily struggles with jealousy, friend Robb explodes with what he is sure must be passion, and Sam fears losing this little oasis of peace and family he has managed to build for himself as he fears that he might not be that different from his father after all.

The second half of the book becomes this intricate cat and mouse thriller where all those relationship dynamics in the first half come into play. It was so good.

On an interesting note, after writing most of this review I went and looked at what the journal reviews had to say. It turns out, Just Call My Name is a sequel to I’ll Be There, which I own but have not yet read. I mention this because Just Call My Name was completely readable in every way without having read the first novel, it stood strongly on its own legs. I had never met the characters before and cared for each one. This is a very strong story about friends and family wrapped nicely with a tense psychological thriller bow. Definitely recommended.

One final note: Robin is working on a post about teens and prison as we speak. Recent statistics indicate that the United States has the highest number of incarcerated people in the developed world. Alarmingly, 1 in 3 black men will go to prison in their lifetime. Not only will some of our teens spend time in jail, but many more of them are affected by these stats as they have family members that have or will spend time in jail. These statistics are so alarming that Sesame Street recently ran a segment that introduced a muppet whose father was in prison. And John Oliver did a very informative rant on the topic on his HBO show Last Week Tonight. And recently an inquiry found that teens being held at Rikers Island were being subjected to abuse by corrections officers. Most people incarcerated are not a psychopathic killer like Clarence Border, but having characters who wrestle with a parent being in prison and the effects that it can have on their lives is an all too necessary addition to young adult literature.

Just Call My Name by Holly Goldberg Sloan was released by Little, Brown on August 5th. ISBN: 9780316122818