YA – Talking to Strangers: A Memoir of My Escape from a Cult

Boucher, Marianne. Talking to Strangers: A Memoir of My Escape from a Cult. Doubleday Canada. 2020. 978-0-385-67733-2. Unpaged. $19.00. Grades 9+.

In 1980, Marianne Boucher was at a crossroads in her ice skating career. Not fully invested in her high school experience, she traveled to California (her first trip alone) to audition for the Ice Capades. On a whim, she went to the beach, where she was approached by two friendly strangers. Pleased with the attention, she joined them for dinner, then a 2-day workshop on “finding pure love and real purpose,” and then a retreat at Camp Mozumdar in the San Bernardino Mountains. (Needless to say, she missed her audition.) Camp involved lectures, songs, chants, and mantras repeated for hours, even days. Along the way, Marianne learned about Reverend Sun Myung Moon and his teachings on the “road to unselfishness.” Meanwhile, Marianne’s mother correctly feared that her daughter had been indoctrinated into a cult, and began her own investigation into how to bring her safely home. The grayscale artwork in this graphic memoir is rendered with quick lines and broad strokes, underscoring how rapidly Marianne was absorbed into the Moonies. The slightly unfinished quality matches her still-developing personality. She writes that her fellow Moonies “seemed to understand how hard I tried – but had failed – at so many things in life.” She also alludes to “all the things that are wrong with me.” Talking to Strangers would be stronger if the author had developed this aspect of her history, so the reader could more deeply understand her vulnerabilities.

THOUGHTS: This is a timeless cautionary tale about the dangers of falling in with a found family that seems too good to be true. Readers of Emma Cline’s The Girls will appreciate this one.

Graphic Memoir          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

YA Realistic Fiction – Minnow Bly; Challenger Deep


Oakes, Stephanie. The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly. New York: Dial Books, 2015. 978-0-803-74070-9. $17.99. 398p. Gr. 9 and up.

“I am a blood-soaked girl” (Oakes 1).  Thus begins the story of Minnow Bly and her journey from the mountains of Montana to juvenile detention.  Raised from a young age in the secluded, polygamous, Kevinian cult, Minnow remembers a world outside of the Community but has been taught (brainwashed) to believe that that world is evil and sinful, and only the Community and the Prophet can protect people from the Gentiles and the war between God and the unbelievers.   After the Prophet receives a prophecy from God (also known as Charlie), Minnow’s fate is set; she is to become his next wife.  When she refuses her fate and runs away, she is caught and her hands are chopped off as penance for her disobedience.  Handless, she is returned to the “maidenhood” room to prepare for marriage, but during an evening of fellowship in Prophet Hall, Minnow’s mother releases her from seclusion, and she is able to escape into the woods.  She runs to her best friend Jude’s cabin, where together, Jude and his father care for Minnow.  As she heals, Minnow realizes that she must return to the community to save her twelve-year old sister, Minnow’s replacement as the Prophet’s new wife.  Caught trying to save a brainwashed Constance, Minnow and Jude are subjected to death by the community.  Minnow survives, escapes to the world, beats a man to near death, and ends up in juvenile detention.  Jude is beaten to death; his body disappearing as the Community is burned to the ground.    Told through flashbacks and dialogue, the story of Minnow’s experience in the community unfolds as a story of strength, cruelty, friendship, fear, and love.  THOUGHTS: This debut novel is exceptional.  It received starred reviews from Booklist, Publisher’s Weekly, and VOYA and was a 2016 William C. Morris Award finalist.  This is a must-have for all high school libraries.  

Realistic Fiction; Suspense    Erin Parkinson, Lincoln JSHS, Ellwood City SD

I absolutely loved The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly.  It has a purity and innocence that I haven’t seen in many of the 2015 YA novels I’ve read.  Minnow is  strong and incredibly weak at the same time.  She stands up for herself and her beliefs, while also questioning everything she has been taught.  Readers will root for her throughout, even though her entire story doesn’t unfold until after page 300.  She states towards the end of the novel, “The power to do what I know is right.  The power to free myself, finally” (Oakes 378).  This is the true message of the novel.  Be strong for yourself.  Minnow does this and is able to free herself of her past.  She is a prominent female protagonist whose questioning of everything will resonate with teen readers.



Shusterman, Neal. Challenger Deep. New York: HarperTeen, 2015. 978-0-06-113411. $17.99. Gr. 9-12.

Middle grade science-fiction staple Neal Shusterman explores teenage mental illness in this deeply affecting, incredible novel. Caden Bosch is living between two worlds.  In one, he’s a typical high school teenager with a few odd quirks; in the other, he’s the resident artist on the Challenger Deep, a ship that’s travelling faster and faster towards a dark abyss in the deepest part of the ocean. On the ship, Caden finds himself ignoring his friends and family but can’t understand why. Through broken glimpses into both worlds, readers see the boy that once was normal, and the boy that is now deeply paranoid, distracted, and isolated. Caden is someone all readers can relate to, and Shusterman gently guides the reader into the harrowing reality of a real mental illness; the paranoia, the questioning, the misunderstanding. Shusterman writes with tact, care, and authority that is important for the teen audience.  Shusterman based Caden on his son, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and the drawings throughout the story are his son’s. THOUGHTS: Shusterman’s story brings to light an important, rarely talked about illness that affects many teens and/or those around them. With a touch of magical realism, Caden’s voice is authentic and personal.  A fantastic addition to any teen collection.

Realistic Fiction  Vicki Schwoebel, Friends’ Central School

The Cemetery Boys and Seed…new YA Suspenseful Reality


Brewer, Heather. The Cemetery Boys. New York: Harper Teen, 2015. 978-0062307880. 48p. $17.99. Gr. 9 & up.

Forced to make some huge changes, Stephen is moved by his father to desolate Spencer, Michigan, a sparsely populated town with an old-fashioned blue collar community. Mounting hospital bills have driven his father to move in with his estranged mother who has never engaged in a relationship with her grandson. Apprehensive Stephen befriends a set of twins, Cara and Devon. Hardened by their father’s death and their mother’s obvious mental health issues, Cara and Devon introduce Stephen to the town’s paranormal urban myth. Meeting at the cemetery nicknamed “The Playground” on a nightly basis, the teens drop subtle clues to build up Stephen’s anxiety about his new living arrangement. Even more, Stephen questions himself and his sanity, focused on his own mother’s breakdown as he puts together the “Winged Ones” legend and its hold on the town. Determined to fit in and make this town a stepping stone to move on and move out, Stephen uncovers the hard truth about the myth and his new “friends”. Suspenseful and filled with the unknown, the book details Stephen’s inner struggle with his own demons while discovering the myth behind Spencer.

Originally, this book was chosen because it promised paranormal suspense. If I was aware of the bird myth, I would not have chosen the book, as realistic fiction is my first choice. It did not fall short in twists, fear factor, or reckless teen behavior. Filled with reckless behavior and peer pressure, the book had characters who failed to pique interest, but readers can relate to the characters’ traits and those of their own peers. Loyalties and deception are paramount, keeping the reader cheering on Stephen and Cara, while disliking Devon. Educators may use this as a way to show the power of suggestion, twisted plots, and surprise endings. If nothing else, it is a guilty pleasure read to be shocked. There will be no sequel, as a definite ending is imminent.

Suspense    Brooke Gerlach, Manheim Central MS




Heathfield, Lisa. Seed. Philadelphia: RP Teens, 2015. 978-0762456345. 336p. $16.95. Gr. 8 & up.

Seed is home for 15-year-old Pearl. Within the first pages of the book, Pearl is being held in seclusion as she goes through her first monthly cycle.  Confused and frightened, she is helped through the week by a woman who Pearl wishes to be her “biological mother”. A child of Nature, Pearl does not know her biological mother. In Seed, girls are raised to become companions of Papa S. Each girl, after they have successfully gotten through their first menstrual cycle, will eventually be chosen to spend time in Papa S’s living quarters.  Old enough to finally be a companion to Papa S., Pearl is confused when Ellis, a well-rounded and versed young man, moves to Seed with his mother and younger sister. Selling produce to the outside world, members of Seed are discouraged from creating acquaintances, much less friends.  Therefore, when Pearl’s friend strikes up a conversation with a boy from the outside, Pearl becomes fearful of the repercussions.  Pearl begins to question the world around her and the people who she once thought protected her. Eventually, Pearl has more questions than answers in her quest for what is real and what is her perceived reality.

Heathfield creates a book rich in the power of brainwashing and mind control. Reminiscent of recent polygamist cults, the book details a cult in which Nature is considered as supreme mother and to be held in high regard. The characters are similar to polygamists who have asked congregations to abandon worldly possessions and live secluded from the norms of society. Heathfield creates the characters to further aid Pearl in her search for answers.  Readers will do a lot of self talk with this book, especially when female characters are made to lie with grown men. Educators will be able to discuss the ways in which cult mentality is formed and the characteristics of human behavior in a group. Recommended for grades 9-12.

Realistic Fiction       Brooke Gerlach, Manheim Central MS