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

*Dreamrider* by Barry Jonsberg- young adult book review  
by Barry Jonsberg
Grades 7+ 256 pages Knopf February 2008 Hardcover    

If you’re a fat teenage boy like Michael Terny in Dreamrider by Barry Jonsberg, constantly transferring from one school to another because you’re a target of bullying, life can be tough. Michael’s life is even harder because his mother died in a car crash when he was young, and he has been raised by his father, who hits the bottle too much and thinks that if Michael would only learn to defend himself and fight back, most of his son’s problems would disappear. What would YOU do in a similar situation - fight back, even though doing so would likely provoke that much more violence and perhaps get you into trouble, or escape your situation the best you could, through the only thing you have control over - what you eat and what you dream?

Though Dreamrider is set in Australia, I couldn’t help but be reminded as I read it about cases in the US. where bullying was one of the factors in such examples of extreme violence as at Columbine. Michael doesn’t go on a wild shooting spree - he’s a relatively normal though overweight young man who has his share of problems but who tries to accept them and deal with them passively, through his dreams and fantasies. One problem he has an especially difficult time trying to resolve, which increases as the novel progresses, is where his dreams end and reality begins.

Imagine being able to control, to manipulate every single thing in your dreams and to discover that it might be possible to bridge the gap between your dreams and reality - that dreams and reality were but two different sides of a continuous Mobius Strip. What would you do with the power to be able to control reality through your dreams? Would you use your power for good, to heal people and perhaps bring peace to the world? Or would you use it to get back at those who’ve wronged you in the past, for revenge?

At his latest new school, Millways High, Michael still gets bullied by students like Jamie Archer and Martin Leechy, who smears chocolate cake in Michael’s face and hair. However, some of the teachers are nice to him, like Mr. Atkins, his Home Group teacher who befriends him and knows magic tricks. Also, Michael makes friends with a girl, Leah McIntyre, and his stepmom, Mary, helps make his life easier by acting as a buffer between him and his abusive but (probably to his own way of thinking) well-intentioned father.

One of the major premises the book is based on is that it is possible to control one’s dreams. In reality, it IS possible to exert influence on your dreams - it’s called “lucid dreaming” - and it is one way some people manage to cope with bullying, abuse, and mental health problems. The scenes in Dreamrider depicting Michael’s dreams, which he eventually shares with Leah, are vivid and captivating, making the reader question what is real and what is a product of Michael’s mind.

Dreamrider blends fantasy and reality, and you can’t help but root for Michael Terny and empathize with him. However, I felt a bit tricked into accepting what was presented in Michael’s daily life at school as being real, when contrasted to his dreams - like Michael’s being pulled up onto the roof of one of Millway’s separate buildings after he jumps (while being pursued by Jamie and his gang of buddies) by a character who is one of his split personalities. It seems like cheating, trying to have it both ways. It’s saying Michael’s creations, or one of his split personalities, can have enough of an existence in “reality” to save his life.

All told, if you like books that make you wonder what is real and what is not, or if you like reading about people who are underdogs, you’ll like reading Dreamrider. Barry Jonsberg has written a wonderful novel sure to raise many issues about mental health and how schools should deal with the issue of bullying. It’s a book that teens and adults will enjoy, a novel that will cause you to ponder what it means for something to be real or a product of one’s fantasies. Wholeheartedly recommended to teen and adult readers.

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

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