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Thursday, August 12, 2010

Never Judge A Book By Its Cover: Rowan the Strange Is Not to Be Missed

(Image from Amazon)

If there was ever a novel that proved the old adage "Never judge a book by its cover," it's Rowan the Strange by Julie Hearn. I mean, take a look at the image above. It's ... odd, disturbing, like something out of a Stephen King tale. The story between the covers, on the other hand, is warm, funny, and surprisingly tender. Not at all what I would have expected from the jacket art.
When the story opens, 13-year-old Rowan Scrivener is sitting on the doorstep of his home watching the sky for bombers. It's 1939, the war's just arriving in London, and Rowan's feeling twitchy. When his grandmother screeches to a halt in front of him in her animal rescue van, beckoning for Rowan to join her on a mission, he hesitates. What if the air raid sirens start screaming again? Shouldn't he stay close to home, just in case? Not that careening around the city streets with his grandmother will be any safer, but still, he probably needs to stay at Spitalfields. Doesn't he? By the time Rowan's done arguing with himself, he's worked himself into such a frenzy that he erupts, leaving his sister in the hospital with three broken fingers. And becoming a reluctant partner in Nana's scheme to save an abandoned chow.
Rowan never intended to hurt his sister - it's just that sometimes he can't calm himself, can't stop the paranoia that whips his thoughts into raging tornados. With the threat of war looming over the city, the Scriveners are already on edge. Rowan's "fits" aren't helping. Desperately seeking a way to help their son, Rowan's parents check him into an asylum in Kent. While the Scriverners agree to doing whatever it takes to make the fits vanish, the doctors are not exactly forthcoming about the newest procedure being tested on schizophrenics like Rowan - electroconvulsive shock therapy. The powerful jolts leave Rowan feeling weary, confused, and not at all himself. With no idea when, or if, he'll be able to go home, he feels hopelessly trapped in the awful hospital of horrors.
The more time Rowan spends in the asylum, however, the more his real life fades away. His world now revolves around his roommate, a spunky girl named Dorothea (who sees angels); gentle Dr. Von Metzer (who, despite being German, is a good kind of fellow); a beautiful nurse (with whom he's quickly falling in love); and the rest of the loonies in the bin. As in the outside world, cruelty exists on the inside as well. So, surprisingly, does compassion. Violated though he is by the doctors' constant pokes, prods, and experimental procedures, it's at the asylum that Rowan learns what it really means to be human. Humanity, he soon discovers, has very little to do with the brain and everything to do with the heart.
As chilling as Hearn's depictions of asylum life are, Rowan the Strange really isn't about social commentary. It's about a boy finding himself in the most unlikely of places. It's about a kid discovering who he is and who he isn't. It's about shattering illusions and facing reality with courage. Most of all, it's an original, engrossing, hauntingly beautiful tale about what it means to be human. I can't recommend it highly enough.
(Readalikes: It's been a long time since I read Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, but I think there are some definite similarities between the two. Other than that, I can't think of any. Can you?)
Grade: A
If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for mild language and some sexual content
To the FTC, with love: Amanda from The Zen Leaf kindly sent me her copy of Rowan the Strange so I could review it as part of the 2010 Nerds Heart YA Tournament. Thank you!


  1. Completely agree -- this book was fantastic! I was dreading having to read it for the tournament because of that creeptastic cover, and I couldn't have been more pleasantly surprised by how taken in with the story I was. Nothing about how I "expected" it to be was true! Really highly recommend it, too.

  2. I feel the same way as Meg. When I heard this made it through Round 1, I groaned. But you're right, this realy is about never judging a book by its cover. I'm so glad Rowan is doing so well in this tournament and that I was forced to read it. :D

  3. i haven't read this and would honestly be a little disturbed toting that cover around and having to look at it. might have to be a kindle read!

  4. What are the three dogs called I have one and it is Greta need help really hard brain hurtstrying to figure it out.

    1. Sorry, Amber, it's been so long since I read this book that I can't remember much about it. Maybe try skimming the book? Or asking your classmates? Good luck!


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