I picked up Escape from Year Eight when I saw it in the library because I remembered reading the second book in the series and not hating it. I also didn’t hate this book – but I’m afraid I can’t really say that I liked it either, unfortunately.
I could deal with the wishy-washy plot and supporting characters, but there were a few messages here that I didn’t find appropriate for the young readers it’s aimed at. Firstly, there’s a pervasive anti-fat thread within the novel. Kaitlin’s mother used to be overweight, but now seems obsessive about staying extremely thin, to the point of not having anything remotely fattening in the house. Kaitlin herself freaks out at the idea of eating anything fattening at all, to the point of pushing aside a lunchtime cheeseburger after only a few bites. What’s more, one peripheral character, Simone, is present in the book only to be mocked for her weight and dedication to her study.
There’s also ample use of terms like “spaz” (including have the love-interest do “a jerky little dance like a spastic person”) and “retard”. I’m not trying to suggest that year eight students (or eighth grade students, in this case) don’t use terms like that, but I don’t think that kind of obnoxious and insensitive behaviour needs to be presented in fiction as being normal and okay.
Finally, the authors touch upon the topic of mental illness. Leon’s mother is portrayed as having ongoing issues that mean she struggles as a parent and talks to inanimate objects. She is fairly sympathetically portrayed – although this is limited by the way the kids all talk about her – and it is more the exploration of Leon’s own issues that struck me as a little naïve. We’re presented with a boy who doesn’t talk for a couple of years, who seems to have suicidal ideation, who points guns at people and who hears voices, and then we’re told that being sent to an alternative school in a big city is the only way his parents and the authorities are trying to help him.
Ultimately, though, Escape from Year Eight wasn’t for me because I just couldn’t like its protagonist. Kaitlin is petty and shallow and often downright cruel. She goes along with bullying and even participates in it, without showing any real signs of learning from her mistakes. She is probably quite realistic, in this sense, but that doesn’t mean I want to read about her. So no, I didn’t hate this book, but unfortunately I didn’t really enjoy it, either.