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Book Review: Panic by Lauren Oliver

Harper Collins March 2014 ISBN: 9780062014559

Small town life can be a desperate life.  There is often not a lot to do, so teens get creative – which brings us to Panic.  Panic is a game that only seniors can play.  It takes place over the summer and those who announce themselves as contenders are given a series of challenges to complete.  Last one standing wins the pot of cash that has been collected all year long.  But when people are desperate, and money is involved, friendship can be thrown out the window, backs will be stabbed, and occasionally someone may lose their life.  Bring on the Panic.

Publishers Annotation: Panic began as so many things do in Carp, a dead-end town of 12,000 people in the middle of nowhere: because it was summer, and there was nothing else to do.

Heather never thought she would compete in Panic, a legendary game played by graduating seniors, where the stakes are high and the payoff is even higher. She’d never thought of herself as fearless, the kind of person who would fight to stand out. But when she finds something, and someone, to fight for, she will discover that she is braver than she ever thought.

Dodge has never been afraid of Panic. His secret will fuel him, and get him all the way through the game, he’s sure of it. But what he doesn’t know is that he’s not the only one with a secret. Everyone has something to play for.

For Heather and Dodge, the game will bring new alliances, unexpected revelations, and the possibility of first love for each of them—and the knowledge that sometimes the very things we fear are those we need the most.

The Review:

I sincerely loved this book.  In part because it is such a spot on depiction of the desperation of small town life – that overwhelming desire to escape at all costs, to flee.  It is also such a harrowing depiction of extreme poverty for one of our main characters, Heather.  Heather lives in a trailer, then literally on the streets, and winning Panic is her only chance for survival.  She needs the cash in a very desperate way.  We see her living out of her car, washing up in gas stations, scrounging for food.  Holy crap did this break my heart.

But Panic is also a thrilling read that escalates into some twisted commentary on the lengths we are willing to go to in order to win.  So it is intense, exciting, and – in the immortal words of James Patterson – unputdownable.  

I have read some online criticism about the fact that the police don’t step in and intervene earlier, but I have lived small town life and am never surprised by the local population’s ability to look the other way until way too late.  There was one element that was a stretch for me involving exotic animals, but we have all read about those types of stories in the news so I went with it.

Online Lauren Oliver has done a lot of speaking out and sharing help information about childhood poverty and homelessness (linked below), which definitely goes along with the themes in Panic.  As I said, the thing I loved most about this book was the rich, authentic and nuanced portrayal of both small town life and the desperation felt by those living in poverty.  The thrilling action is icing on the cake.  I think this one will be a big hit and many teen readers will identify with what is happening and why in the story.  Pair this with Dare Me by Eric Devine.

Awareness/Resources for Teen Poverty, Hunger, Disabilities, and Children of Alcoholic Parents

Teen Homelessness and Hazing Awareness

More on Teens and Poverty at TLT:

Can We All Just Stop Saying the Internet Is Free Now Please?
Rich Teen, Poor Teen: Books that depict teens living in poverty

Working with youth who live in poverty

Sunday Reflections: This is what losing everything looks like

Sunday Reflections: Going to bed hungry

Sunday Reflections: A tale of two libraries
Sunday Reflections: Poverty doesn’t always look the way you think it does

Feeding Teens at the Library: Summer and Afterschool Meals
The Economy as Villain in The Year of Shadows by Claire LeGrand


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