CM . . .
. Volume XIV Number 22 . . . . June 27, 2008
When Devon's dad meets Lily and becomes interested in a relationship with her, life seems to fall apart. Father and son have less time to just hang out together, and Devon's mom has been out of the picture for so long that there's no alternative place to live. Things go from bad to worse when Devon's dad becomes ill and doctors can't seem to pinpoint the problem. Lily eventually suggests trying alternative treatments in her native country of Vietnam.
No sooner do they arrive in Vietnam than Lily conspires to separate Devon and his dad. Lily's "tea" has some peculiar properties because, after drinking it, Devon wakes up in a locked room. A few days later, he knows he has been moved, but he's still locked up, along with three other boys. He finally learns he has been sold to Long, the owner of a restaurant which also serves as a brothel. Because of his fair skin and red hair, Long knows she can demand a good price for Devon.
Friends back home don't believe Devon has merely run away, and so an international search is launched, and he is eventually rescued. But life at home has totally changed. Without his dad, Devon must learn to deal with living in a foster home. As well, he has become the focus of the media, to say nothing of the extra attention he gets from his school peers.
Kilbourne builds her plot and characters skillfully. Devon is a likable 13-year-old whose main concerns are skateboarding and hanging out with friends. When his world turns upside down, readers identify with him, and the story becomes a page-turning combination of adventure, mystery and terror. The horrible circumstances of Devon's capture and the life he is forced to lead seem very real. Even after the rescue, there is no easy "happy ever after." Kilbourne is more realistic than that! Devon returns to a completely different life, echoing and reflecting the completely different individual he has become. Life inflicts scars of various sorts on everyone, and Devon has to learn to accept what has happened to him, rise above it, and move on. Quite a challenge! One often finds that the best way to overcome personal tragedy and trauma is to help others, and eventually Devon learns this lesson and puts it into practice.
Christina Kilbourne's novels for young adult readers are entertaining, with believable characters, realistic settings, and plots which keep readers on the edge of their seats. But the best books deal not just with entertainment, but also education, and this is where Kilbourne stands apart from others. A quote from the United States of America Department of State (June, 2007) at the beginning of the novel states: "Each year, more than two million children are exploited in the global commercial sex trade." Although writing fiction, Kilbourne has a point to get across. Without being preachy, she enlightens her readers on facts of life that, while they could be ignored, are important to deal with in terms of our global community.
Critics might question anything to do with trafficking of children for sexual exploitation in a novel aimed at young adults. Yet, because of the media, teens are bombarded by all kinds of disturbing stories and understand much more than we might give them credit for. Kilbourne handles her subject with sensitivity and tact within an extraordinarily exciting novel. This provides an excellent opportunity for teens to read about such a dark topic. Adults around them can share the book and then discuss frightening, perhaps 'taboo' topics in a safe and secure environment, whether at home or in a classroom. Rather than hoping teens just "won't notice," adults can instead teach them to face the reality of the world around them and hopefully suggest coping strategies or perhaps even nudge them toward activism of some sort.
This novel has some very difficult passages but ends with Devon's adapting and persevering. Eventually, we see that he has begun the process of healing and consequently can turn his horrible experiences into something positive. This is a message of both determination and hope which teens need to hear. Teens, parents, and teachers should all make They Called Me Red a priority on their reading list!
Ann Ketcheson, a retired teacher-librarian and teacher of high school English and French, lives in Ottawa, ON, where she has turned her love of travel into a new career as a travel consultant.
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