Children's Literacy and Reading Roundup: January 11
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They Never Came Back: Caroline B. Cooney: YA Book Review

Book: They Never Came Back
Author: Caroline B. Cooney
Pages: 208
Age Range: 10 and up 

TheyNever Caroline B. Cooney's They Never Came Back is a book that I added to my wish list as soon as I heard about it. The premise intrigued me, and I already had a positive impression of the author. When it showed up on my doorstep this week (courtesy of Random House), it arrived at the perfect time. I needed something that would hold my complete attention - something intriguing and compelling. So I pretty much dropped everything else to read They Never Came Back cover to cover. And it was exactly what I was looking for.

Murielle is ten years old when her charming financier parents flee the country to avoid prosecution for embezzlement. Murielle is supposed to meet her father at the airport. However, circumstances intervene, and she is left behind. Her parents, apparently living the good life with the $10 million that they've stolen from hapless clients, don't come back for her. After some conflict around her aunt and uncle's culpability in the whole matter, Murielle disappears into the Connecticut foster care system.

Five years later, Murielle's cousin Tommy spots a girl in a high school cafeteria who he is sure is his long-lost cousin. She looks at him blankly, and says (paraphrasing) "Who's Murielle? I'm Cathy Ferris." This immediately ignites fascination in the other students (and the reader). Are Murielle and Cathy the same person? If so, why is she pretending to be someone else? And if not, what happened to Murielle, and why can't her aunt and uncle find her? Cooney tells the resulting story in alternating chapters from the perspectives of ten-year-old Murielle and fifteen-year-old Cathy.

Caroline Cooney (author of titles ranging from The Face on the Milk Carton to If the Witness Lied) has a real knack. She can create an irresistible premise, pull the reader in with a fast, tight pace, and then surprise you by how emotionally invested you are in the characters by the end of the book. They Never Came Back is no exception. Pretty much all of the characters are flawed. They make mistakes. But their motivations feel authentic, and their wounds bleed from the page. Especially those of abandoned, vulnerable, determined Murielle.

Cooney's writing style matches well with the storyline. She uses lots of short sentences, straightforward descriptions, and similes that feel almost cliched, yet are perfectly apt. For example:

"Tommy was clearly not happy talking about his cousin's disappearance. But he had little choice. Questions were coming like pellets from a shotgun. He took a deep breath and launched himself." (Page 5)

"Now her father shouted too. Aunt Lois shouted back. It was like being in the midst of gunfire." (Page 28)

Cooney is not afraid to pretty directly show the characters' emotions and vulnerabilities. For example:

"She imagined seeing them (her parents) in the distance as they came into focus, and she imagined how wide their smiles were, how their arms were lifted up to hug her, how they started to run toward her...But  at what point does the child stop hoping that Mommy and Daddy will come?

The answer to that was easy.

Never. A child never stops hoping." (Page 141)

They Never Came Back is about parents and children, about right and wrong, about crimes and consequences, and, most of all, about identity. It's a book that I would have swallowed whole as an early teen, and in fact swallowed whole today. Although marketed for young adults, I think that it will be fine for slightly younger kids, too. It's a very clean read - the only problem younger readers might have with the book is the idea of parents choosing money over their child. Recommended for middle school readers and up.

Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: January 12, 2010
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher
Other Blog Reviews: Richie's Picks

© 2010 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. All Amazon links in this post are affiliate links, and may result in my receiving a small commission on purchases (with no additional cost to you).