Breakout, by Kate Messner
published in 2018 by Bloomsbury Children’s Books
I flew through Kate Messner’s most recent middle-grade novel last week, and loved it for so many reasons. It’s an excellent story starring a believable, flawed, likeable main character. The plot is contemporary, relevant, and fast-paced. If I were running a middle-grade book-club, this title would certainly be on our reading list.
The events it’s based on are quite familiar to me. Two inmates escaped from an upstate New York correctional facility in the summer of 2015, and the hunt to find them lasted almost three weeks. Do you remember this? The reason it has stuck with me is that our family happened to be driving out to New Hampshire at the same time, coming via Montreal and down through Vermont, listening to reports of searches going on in those very areas. My son, meanwhile, who lives in New Hampshire, had been solo-hiking in the White Mountains, racing up Mt. Adams in the middle of the night in order to arrive at the peak for sunrise, oblivious to the unfolding story. Even though, as it turned out, the escapees were nowhere near the White Mountains, I remember thinking, “Oh boy. Hopefully Erik doesn’t stumble over any prisoners in the dark!”
Kate Messner’s home in New York lies smack within the search area and her experiences during that unusual time gave rise to this novel. The major plot line of the book incorporates many elements of that escape and ensuing search. Obviously, that’s a compelling story in itself. Add to that the way Messner layers in issues of racism, racial profiling, the role of the media, inequities in our justice system, and, why not, let’s throw in mentoring texts by black, female poets, and Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton for good measure. Messner juggles all of this disparate stuff masterfully. That’s the signature of one talented author!
The story spotlights three, fictional, 7th-grade girls, their experiences and perspectives, as they walk through the episode with their community: Nora and Lizzie, long-time best friends who are both White, and Elida, an African-American newcomer to town. Their day-to-day lives are completely disrupted by this incident. And their assumptions, blind spots, frustrations, worries, sorrows, and aspirations undergo realistic, incremental, and at times painful maturation as they interact with one another, their parents, and other community members.
The novel is constructed as a collection of pieces for a time-capsule, a compilation of what these three wrote to document the weeks. Thus text messages, recorded conversations, newspaper clippings, cartooning, poetry, and other creative writing pieces comprise the entire book. It makes for fast, varied reading that will appeal to many middle-graders. Beyond the overt communication on the pages, there’s a whole lot revealed between the lines, real riches that require care and insight from readers to mine. Without didacticism, Messner clearly reveals the damaging impacts of racism, and raises other contemporary issues judiciously, presenting them in honest complexity. I was amazed at how much fodder there was for reflection and discussion.
One of the things I love about Kate Messner’s books is her keen ability to create believable middle-grade characters who are growing in maturity yet still young, increasing in discernment yet still naive, passionate and growing in independence, yet still under the authority of parents and other adults. There are a lot of 12-year-old literary characters who think, speak, and act far beyond their age; Messner’s are wonderful 7th graders, through and through. I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know all three of these girls.
The cherry on top is a curated list of books for further reading. There are some great titles here in addition to the superb books Elida reads within the story that’ll hopefully prompt many readers to follow her lead. Fantastic read for ages 9 and up! Grab it for your Fall book clubs!