Scar Island by Dan Gemeinhart
Rating: 5 stars
Jonathan Grisby did a bad, bad thing. Of course, author Dan Gemeinhart doesn't tell you what it is in the first few chapters. But let me tell you, you want to know right away, and this NEEDTOKNOW feeling is one of the many things that makes this new middle grade novel a complete page-turner.
Scar Island opens in the exhilarating, emotional moments when Jonathan is being taken by boat to a school for bad, bad boys. Slabhenge Reformatory School for Troubled Boys is on a scrappy, barren island and Jonathan feels it's exactly where he should be, because from the first page of Gemeinhart's third novel we feel his guilt for whatever he's done to deserve this horrible consequence.
Once he's on the island, Jonathan quietly befriends the boys who've been there longer. They help him navigate through the harsh rules of and unsympathetic group of grown ups at Slabhenge (what are these men like? They call the boys "scabs."). Just as he's found his way through the rules, a freak accident in the middle of an electric storm leaves the boys by themselves. What happens next is part Lord of the Flies and part Holes--the misfit boys have to figure out how to survive without the rules imposed by adults.
Jonathan finds his way through this challenge and the different personalities of the boys around him, but he also struggles to face the charges against him at home. It's this inner struggle that was most compelling for me. I kept reading because I wanted--no, I needed--to know what Jonathan had done to deserve being sent to Slabhenge. Jonathan's emotional journey from feeling guilt-ridden to forgiving himself is a strong one. He beats himself up like most children do (and adults I know would) for what turns out to be a very sad mistake.
My ten year-old daughter read Scar Island and said, before I learned what Jonathan's did: "It's really bad, Mom." Later, after I finished the book, she said that because of the mistake, it should be for older readers. Her guess was 10-14. But the recommended age is grades 3 through 5 (though School Library Journal says a little higher, grades 5 through 8). I think grades 3 through 5 is about right. Yes, there is a child who dies in the wake of Jonathan's troubles. But I think the story is realistic and powerful because of this--and children will find the story sobering, empowering, and ultimately uplifting.
Note: This book is available in audio format; the performance by MacLeod Andrews was impressive--he made the grown-ups snarl in just the right way, and made the boys' experience trapped on the island come alive. I highly recommend keeping this book in mind for any long summer drive...though the youngest child in the car probably should probably be eight or so (why is this lower than the age/grade in above paragraph? Because you'll be listening right along with them, and you'll be there to answer questions and talk about Jonathan's mistake and its consequences right alongside your child).