NY Times Book Review 10 Best Illustrated Children's Books of 2011
People: Blexbolex

Unforgettable: Loretta Ellsworth

Book: Unforgettable
Author: Loretta Ellsworth
Pages: 272
Age Range: 12 and up

Bk_unfor_120I really liked Unforgettable, a new young adult title by Loretta Ellsworth. It's about a boy named Baxter Green who, after an early childhood fall, ends up with perfect memory. This, in and of itself, is fascinating (it's not as positive a thing as one might think). But Ellsworth uses Baxter's struggles with his unusual gift as background for a suspenseful story about running away from a recently released convicted felon, reinventing oneself, fitting in at a small high school, and even environmental activism. It's a surprisingly compelling mix. Had my schedule permitted, I think that I would have read Unforgettable in a single sitting.

Baxter is an intriguing and likeable character, despite making some poor decisions. Reading this book, I found myself really wondering "what would it be like to never forget anything?" There would certainly be upsides (schoolwork would be easier, you'd never run into someone and forget their name, etc.). But Unforgettable makes it clear that living with every bit of your past accessible to you, even the things that you'd rather forget, isn't always a fun thing. Here's Baxter on his first day at a new high school (after 3 years of being homeschooled):

"I'm not used to this place, to the swarm of bodies and books in the hallways. My head swirls and I try to stay focused and in the present. It's hard wit the memories pressing in, triggered by random thoughts and smells and sounds. There's a constant battle in my head over past and present. Too often, the past wins.

For most people, memory is like sand. It shifts and settles over the open spaces of the mind, piling memory on top of memory until what's left is a fragile sand castle in the brain, one that will crack and leak out all the old memories when the flood of new ones pours in. But my memory is like stone. It's hard and permanent, and most of all, it's always present, a living monument to my own history." (Page 6)

Imagine being able to remember every fall (or slap in the face by your mother's irate boyfriend). Imagine being the 12-year-old tool of an unscrupulous thief, using you to memorize credit card numbers. Imagine still missing your best friend from kindergarten, and remembering every single thing that you ever did together. Imagine zoning out in school, as the stream of memories overwhelms you. Imagine the teasing when you spout out random facts like an encyclopedia. Well, you get the idea.

Baxter's mom is a little bit of a stereotype (single mom taken in by ne'er-do-well boyfriend), but there's a wonderful scene in which she reassures Baxter that his memory really is a gift. Like Baxter, she is imperfect but ultimately likeable. Several other characters, particularly the girl that Baxter has a crush on, are crisp and multi-dimensional, too, though I found a few of the secondary characters a bit fuzzy.

Ellsworth's portrayal of a small mining town in Minnesota feels dead-on, too (though I've never actually visited such a town, and can't say for sure). The environmental conflict, health risks to miners in a town where the mine offers the only jobs, is realistic, and no easy, shortcut solutions are provided.

Unforgettable features a premise that draws the reader in, an intriguing and suspenseful plot, a unique narrator, and a solid setting. Ellsworth so solidly inhabits Baxter's voice that it's hard to even comment on the writing style - it's just Baxter. With passages like this:

"On the way to school I sit in my usual spot on the bus, fifth seat from the front on the left-hand side. We're halfway to school when a green car passes us going the opposite direction. For a moment, I think it's a Camaro. A metallic, fern green Camaro. But I'm not sure because I only get a glimpse and it's gone now.

I lean my head against the window and clutch my stomach. I have an acid taste in my throat. I look at my watch but the memories spill out like a waking dream and I'm stuck back with him again." (Page 88)

Although Unforgettable is young adult fiction (Baxter is 15 and in high school), I think this would be an ok read for middle schoolers. There's some kissing, but no other "mature behavior." And Baxter's quirky talent renders him a bit less mature for his age, in many ways. So, worth a look for strong younger readers.

All in all, Unforgettable is a strong and memorable book, one that I would recommend to anyone looking for good realistic YA fiction (ok, the photographic memory isn't common, but it's still more realistic than vampires or dystopias).

Publisher: Walker Books for Young Readers (@BWKids)
Publication Date: September 27, 2011
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

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