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SPOILER WARNING

Hi, it’s Aashna! Today I am going to be reviewing Us Kids Know by JJ Strong. If you haven’t heard of this book, I wouldn’t be surprised. I actually came across it while working at a literary agency. I generally stay on top of current, popular books and I’m now sad to say that this book wasn’t on my radar even though it has every reason to be. This book is simply special. Often, YA books fall into a sort of cliche mold that conceals the talents of YA writers. Their work is perceived as easy, even frivolous. Strong doesn’t underestimate his audience in the slightest and proves how writing YA doesn’t necessarily have to sound young. This book was written with the maturity of an adult novel, the characters’ ages being the only aspect that makes it YA. I cannot overstate the lasting impact this book has had on me and its overall importance to the YA genre. This story meant something in a shockingly profound way.

One of the biggest things nailed in this book was setting. Having this book take place soon after 9/11 in New Jersey was not be chance, Strong purposefully made that decision to add another layer of complexity to this story. It’s especially relevant to teenagers today when larger problems always seem to frame the world we live in.

I imagine it must be incredibly hard for adults to write YA books, because they have to authentically create a teenage voice. It’s been years or even decades since these people have had to deal with issues and angst specifically relating to teenagers. Often, it’s clear that the author is an adult through the teenage assumptions projected onto the characters. Strong, amazingly, was able to write from three different teenage perspectives, each sounding unique and authentic. As a teenager, I was able to relate to these characters on a deeper level than I relate in most books. Bri, Cullen, and Ray clearly sounded their ages in both dialogue and inner monologues.

This book is psychologically messed up. There’s no other way to put it. I have never read something set in the real world where characters go to such disturbing lengths to get what they want. The best examples are Cullen jumping in front of the car and Ray wanting to be buried alive. I can’t say I don’t understand the characters’ intentions, because Strong made those quite clear, It’s just strange to think about how someone could even come up with such twisted ideas for a realistic fiction book. Sure, I can go on and on about how amazing Us Kids Know is, but I was uncomfortable to the point where I wanted to put the book down at times.

Strong does not shy away from tackling philosophical topics, normally not even discussed in high school, much less in YA literature. The arguing perspectives on matters like religion, suicide, and love were thought provoking. I could see the support for all the presented opinions, something that adds a rich maturity. This book would easily cause readers to question their fundamental opinions on established topics, which is what truly great books should do. My perspective should be broadened and I should be left with the impact for years to come.

This story had an interesting timeline. The perspectives, dates, and events weave together and sometimes backtrack without sounding redundant. Strong struck a nice balance between telling his story in a unique way without being forced.

As I sidetone, I appreciate how Strong make it a point to mention school work. Yes, these kids are in high school, so they have certain responsibilities. It always bothers me when books that mention school leave out homework and studying. That’s what school really is, not just a place to go hang out with friends and eat lunch!

The character development was also impressive. It wasn’t about rushing the characters to become better people by the end of the story, Strong was focused on making sure the characters end up in a realistic place. 

I’m still on the fence about the romance in this book. I know that I don’t support it, so this is definitely different from what I normally feel in YA romances. This wasn’t the romance I wanted, but it goes without saying that Strong wrote what he wanted well. Bri and Cullen’s relationship was heavy. They weren’t in love and their relationship was built on unhealthy notions. I don’t mind having this kind of relationship highlighted, but towards the end, it seemed to take over, thus weakening the other interesting plot points. I hated Bri’s character when she was with Cullen. He ruined her ambitious nature, one of my favorite parts about her character. I guess it comes down to whether I would count this as a positive for Strong’s consistent writing style or a negative for ruining some of my reading experience.

There was so much more to be explored with Amir and Ray’s friendship. I felt like most of the big developments happened away from the story the reader was presented with. In turn, Ray’s anguish at Amir’s death was understandable, yet lacking the potential full impact.

One thing that upset was the ending. As a reader, I have been through enough series to be absolutely heartbroken when an author doesn’t wrap things up with a pretty bow. As a critic, I understand the necessity of leaving things open ended, to give the reader room to think. However, Strong cut things off too early. The story was not in the place where it could loosely end. I did not like being left on an abrupt note after such a beautiful story.

I have to give this book a solid 4 stars. No doubt this is a book that will stay with me. There’s no way to forget such a deep, strange story. The problems that I pointed out didn’t ruin my reading experience at all, I only realized how they irritated me when writing down my notes for this review. 

Thank you for reading my review and I hope you will join me again as we go off to amazing places.

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Aashna Moorjani
Aashna Moorjani is a sophomore (18-19) at Millburn High School and the Website Administrator for Studio 462.