Book Review: Thoughts & Prayers by Bryan Bliss
Fight. Flight. Freeze. What do you do when you can’t move on, even though the rest of the world seems to have?
For readers of Jason Reynolds, Marieke Nijkamp, and Laurie Halse Anderson. Powerful and tense, Thoughts & Prayers is an extraordinary novel that explores what it means to heal and to feel safe in a world that constantly chooses violence.
Claire, Eleanor, and Brezzen have little in common.
Claire fled to Minnesota with her older brother, Eleanor is the face of a social movement, and Brezzen retreated into the fantasy world of Wizards & Warriors.
But a year ago, they were linked. They all hid under the same staircase and heard the shots that took the lives of some of their classmates and a teacher. Now, each one copes with the trauma as best as they can, even as the world around them keeps moving.
Told in three loosely connected but inextricably intertwined stories, National Book Award–longlisted author Bryan Bliss’s Thoughts & Prayers follows three high school students in the aftermath of a school shooting. Thoughts & Prayers is a story about gun violence, but more importantly it is the story of what happens after the reporters leave and the news cycle moves on to the next tragedy. It is the story of three unforgettable teens who feel forgotten.
I finished this book feeling both so, so angry and so, so hopeful. Angry because of the state of things and hopeful because of the awe-inspiring resiliency of humans. Angry that school shootings happen and hopeful that expanded conversations and movements regarding gun violence may one day lead us to a better, safer place. Angry as I think back to every library I’ve worked at, whether school or public, and had moments of fear, had lockdown drills, had spots picked out where I would hide, where I would shove kids. I finished the book angry at some characters, hopeful because of others, and really just profoundly sad that this fictional story is the true story of so many schools, so many communities, so many children.
Told in three parts, we meet Claire, Eleanor, and Brezzen. All three survived the school shooting together and now are in very different places in their lives. Claire moved from NC to MN, where she lives with her brother and seems to hope to skateboard her troubles away. It’s at the skate park that she meets God, Leg, and Dark, three boys who quickly adopt her as their friend. But Claire is wary of everything these days. She worries about monsters lurking around every corner, worries who she can trust, and worries that pretending to be fine is maybe not working out so great. Her new friendships are tested when she discovers deeply disturbing notebooks full of horrific art and now has to worry that she could be missing the signs or the chance to speak up and prevent something like a shooting from happening again.
Eleanor is still in NC and has become “the face of a new generation of teenagers who would save the world” after she began wearing a shirt that says fuck guns. This third of the story was probably the hardest for me—to see her peers and her community ridicule and harass her even though they too lived through this awful event. My politics are hardly a secret and while I can certainly understand that plenty of people can have something involving gun violence hit so close to home and yet not see guns as a problem (I mean—I can’t understand that, but I do understand this is how some people feel), it is gutting to see the fallout for Eleanor, who has very reasonably taken the stand that our country’s relationship with guns is a problem. Her story is very much about people trying to make her face the consequences of her “choice.” You know, her choice to be outraged, horrified, broken, loud, and hurt.
Meanwhile, Brezzen, the third student we meet, has been out of school for the past year. Going back has been just too scary. He has undergone extensive therapy, and when he does return to school, he can only face it if he approaches the whole ordeal like something from Wizards and Warriors, his favorite role-playing game. He makes maps, rolls his d20, and is always on the lookout for traps and monsters. He doesn’t know if he can actually handle being back at school.
These are teenagers in pain. We watch them remember to breathe, pretend to be fine, try to feel “normal,” and fall apart. Their stories are filled with pain, fear, rage, and grief. But no one is any one thing, no matter what our trauma or seemingly defining moment may be. The characters change, grow, and heal. They need help and they get help. They are not okay, and readers see that that’s okay. They have supportive teachers, parents, and friends. There is talk of therapy and trauma-informed practices. The characters show what is possibly the only true and universal part of grief and trauma: that healing and progress are not linear. In Bliss’s capable hands, we see their stories as intensely personal and individual while also being part of a larger narrative, a shared experience. We see them as broken and scarred but also as brave, fighters, warriors. They are survivors. They are coping. They are made-up characters, but their stories are those of thousands upon thousands of teenagers who live through these school shootings. A deeply empathetic, emotional, and infuriating story full of unforgettable characters (Dr. Palmer, I love you!). This affecting story is not to be missed.
Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the author
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 09/29/2020
Age Range: 14 – 17 Years
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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