Last month at ALA I ran into a former colleague from my bookselling days. It was great to catch up with her, and hear all about what her amazing children are up to. She's now working as a sales rep for Scholastic, so of course I asked what new books on their list I should be sure not to miss. And without missing a beat, Chris whipped a copy of Eliot Schrefer's Endangered off the display shelf behind her and proceeded to tell me it was the best thing she'd read in ages.
Well, that's high praise coming from a former bookstore owner and children's book expert. I wasn't about to waste time debating her recommendation, so I hightailed it to the library holds list. And I'm pleased to say that Chris was 100% right - this is a stunningly written book and perhaps the most evocative, compelling novel I have read in quite some time.
And that cover - in a word, breathtaking.
The plot of Endangered is really unique by current teen fiction trends, and I think that's a big selling point. Sure, we all love our fantasy, but what about a great adventure novel? Survival is what drives the story of Sophie Biyoya-Ciardulli, a narrator whose voice is completely unforgettable. Sophie is "home" in Congo, visiting her mother who runs a sanctuary for bonobos there. Sophie and her mother have a complex relationship, made even more fraught by the fact that when Sophie and her father moved back to Miami, her mother stayed behind with the bonobos. For Sophie, who spent a large chunk of her childhood in Congo, the trip is emotional to begin with - but then when she rescues a young bonobo from a trader, Sophie finds herself involved on a much deeper level.
And then war breaks out.
It is Congo, after all, and so not terribly unexpected that there should be political upheaval. But this is like nothing Sophie's ever dealt with - her mother is away, and Sophie's alone with the staff at the sanctuary when rebels come and take it over. Forced to flee with her young bonobo, Otto, Sophie first seeks refuge in the bonobo enclosure, a large parcel of land where the rehabilitated apes roam free. But it isn't long before even the enclosure isn't safe for Sophie and Otto, or the rest of the bonobos, and the fight to survive becomes a conflict of all new proportions.
It's not often that a book has me on the edge of my seat but Endangered absolutely did. There's no guarantee that Sophie will make it out alive, much less that her primate friends will, but as a reader I was pulling for all of them. The odds are more than insurmountable -- disease, dehydration, starvation, and exposure are all very real threats, equal to those faced at the hands of rebels with guns, not to mention the dangers of predators. Just when you think all is lost, Schrefer turns up the intensity a little more, and suddenly new elements of the story come into play. This is an author who's not pulling any punches, which makes the reading experience that much more intense.
Schrefer's made his way onto my list of must-read authors, and I can't wait to go back and explore his other titles as well. Give this to teens who crave adventure, but read it yourself as well. Trust me when I say that this stacks up against any adult title - it's sharply written, with compelling characters (human and bonobo), and enough thrills to keep you turning pages like a crazy person. And the emotion -- and relationships -- are as raw as the jungle itself.
Endangered by Eliot Schrefer, published by Scholastic
First Words: "Concrete can rot. It turns green and black before crumbling away. Maybe only people from Congo know that."