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Young adult book reviews for ages 12 and up - middle school and high school students

*The Decoding of Lana Morris* by Laura and Tom McNeal- young adult dark fantasy book review

Also by Laura and Tom McNeal:

The Decoding of Lana Morris
by Laura and Tom McNeal
Grades 8+ 304 pages Knopf May 2007 Hardcover    

What makes you tick? What is the “code” behind your feelings and actions, the whys, wherefores, and reasons you do what you do - what makes you the sort of person you are? Whit Winters, the manipulative foster father of sixteen-year-old Lana Morris, wants to discover the answer to these questions about her. He and his wife, Veronica, whom Lana thinks of as the “Ice Queen” because of her cold, spiteful nature, are also the foster parents of several special-needs kids, whom they refer to as “Snicks.”

The Decoding of Lana Morris by Laura and Tom McNeal is a brilliantly written book about Lana’s life and experiences at the “Snick House,” and about a theme that’s been explored in many fairy tales and other stories: Be very careful what you wish for - it just might come true, and possibly with unseen and unwanted consequences.

The Decoding of Lana Morris is a poignant, touching novel that fans of the McNeals’ other award-winning books, Crooked, Zipped, and Crushed, should enjoy a lot, and it will likely earn the couple many more new fans (it certainly touched my own life, bringing back memories of my mother, who taught children with learning disabilities). Lana has never been around kids like those she meets at the Snick House before, and she tries to get her case worker, Hallie, to get her moved somewhere else. Eventually, though, she comes to learn through living with the kids that they’re people just like she is, trying to make it through life as best they can day by day, wanting someone to need them, care for them, and love them.

Tilly is the special-needs kid who rooms with Lana. Her favorite color is pink. She likes to pick out the pink Fruit Loops and eat them first. Some other facts about Tilly:
Tilly liked to wear pink pants with lots of pockets - her favorite pair had a pocket total of ten - and she liked using the pockets for the special objects she found - a small, smooth red rock, a stick resembling a fork, a leaf shaped like a heart. And any kind of feather. Feathers were her specialty, and nests, though she didn’t put these in her pockets - she always hand-carried the nests. Often she presented them to Lana as gifts, and Lana made a point of arranging them along the windowsills in her room.
Lana doesn’t realize how much Tilly and the other foster children are growing on her until one day Tilly says words that “sent something like an electrical shock through Lana’s system”:
“I’m a big mistake. No one should have had me.” Tilly’s lower lip began tremble like a toddler’s. “That’s why no one wants me.”
Everybody has the desire to feel wanted, need, and loved. What would you tell Tilly in such a situation, if you were Lana? Lana says to her, “Well, I want you, Tilly. I like to be with you.” She grows in the novel from a more-or-less typical teenager, wrapped up in herself and her own worries, into someone who learns that by showing that you care for and love others, you can end up finding out who you really are deep inside.

Veronica Winters is a hateful woman who only seems to be in the foster parenting business for the monthly checks from the state. Lana turns to Veronica’s husband, Whit, for support, because he acts as if he cares for her. However, he is manipulative and displays inappropriate affection to her, leads her on, and causes Lana to start feeling love for him, despite her knowing that falling in love with a married man is crossing the line, breaking the rules.

If only there was a way to escape the life Lana has found herself in - or to at least improve it, and the lives of the Snicks.... A way presents itself to Lana when she begs a ride from some criminally-inclined teenagers through her friend and next-door neighbor, Chet. They look down on her, because she’s a foster, has no money, and lives in a house with Snicks, and they make her ride in the trunk of the car.

In an attempt to out-run a dust devil, the teens find themselves at “the historic town of Hereford,” where they stop for a bite to eat. Lana, let out of the trunk by Chet, in checking out the town, sees a wooden sign reading: MISS HEKKITY’S ODDMENTS & ANTIQUES, and the words
What Lana desires most in the mysterious shop is a Ladies’ Drawing Kit. Its price is only two dollars, but for Lana to buy it, she would have to part with the two-dollar bill her father, now in jail, gave to her, which she keeps rolled up behind her ear. This is a great sacrifice for her to make, but she buys the drawing kit. Little is she aware that it’s a magical kit, and whatever is drawn (or erased) on the paper eventually happens in real life.

The Decoding of Lana Morris grabs you from the very beginning and keeps you reading and learning more about (and rooting for) Lana and the Snicks. A story about how a teenager copes and adapts to being in a foster home with special-needs kids she learns to care for treat as her friends, it’s also a “staunch” (to borrow a word Chet uses) tale of how our choices affect our lives and the lives of those around us.

In addition to being able to write an excellent story, the McNeals have a generous heart: “ten percent of the royalties from the book will go to The Arc of the United States, an organization that advocates for the rights and full participation of children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.” The McNeals are a superlative writing team, and I highly recommend this latest offering, destined to win awards in its own right.

Young adult book reviews for ages 12 and up - middle school and high school students

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