The Most Dangerous Place on Earth

288p. ebook available. Random. Jan. 2017. Tr $27. ISBN 9780812997279.
In every class, there is one kid who seems to attract bullies. At Mill Valley Middle School, that kid is eighth grader Tristan Bloch. Day after day, he eats lunch in the guidance counselor's office, wearing the same yellow sweatpants. Fellow classmate Callie absentmindedly accepts an origami bird from Tristan, one of the dozens that he obsessively folds each day. But, to Callie's shock, Tristan responds a few days later by sending her an eloquent love letter. Callie shares the letter with her BFF, Abigail, who in turn shows it to popular jock Ryan. On Facebook, Ryan and some of his buddies start deriding Tristan, with Abigail and other classmates piling on. Just before the end of eighth grade, Tristan kills himself. Readers catch up with these same kids for their junior and senior years of high school. The memory of Tristan seems to have faded, but his death has clearly left its mark. The rest of the book is told from the third-person perspectives of various students and teachers, revealing their suppressed grief and guilt. Each new protagonist offers such a unique point of view that the title reads like connected short stories. Despite the gritty, realistic theme, there is plenty of sly wit, such as when junior David Chu struggles with the strategies for SAT success. ("Pronouns: Mr. Ellison does not like He. He does not like You.") Debut novelist Johnson creates full-bodied characters who are impulsive, irrational, and never beyond redemption. She submerges readers in a complex tale told with beautiful prose and raw emotion, focusing on a danger that adolescents know too well—the hubris of youth.
VERDICT For those who appreciate dark, intense reads.

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