Published by HarperCollins on March 8th, 2016
Perfect for fans of Mockingbird and Counting by 7s, Caela Carter’s middle grade debut is a story of one girl’s strength and courage as she decides who she is and what she will believe in.
Behind the white-washed walls of the compound, life was simple. Follow the rules, “live in the Light,” and all would be well. Zylynn was excited to turn thirteen and begin the work of bringing others into the light, to save them from the liars and the darkness of the outside world. But when she is taken away by a man who claims to be her father, Zylynn is confused and desperate to return to her home.
Zylynn resists her new life—until she finds small comforts like shampoo, the color pink, and strawberries. But as her thirteenth birthday approaches, Zylynn must make a difficult decision—to stay with the enemy or find her way back to the light. And neither may be what it seems.
Wow wow wow wow wow. I downloaded this just a few days ago, right before its release. I wasn’t sure about it – I don’t read a whole lot of books about such young protagonists. But when I heard this is about a girl who was raised in a cult, well, my interest was piqued. My Life With the Liars delivered on its premise and then some. This was heartbreaking and offered heart-pounding tension along with a lot of interesting, nuanced characters.
Because of how this is written, from the perspective of 12 year old Zylynn who was raised on the compound of the Children Inside the Light, the reader is left to kind of piece everything together. Zylynn is taken from the compound at the very start of the book and it is a terrifying ordeal for her. She was raised to believe that darkness burns your skin, torments you, causes you pain. The people who live Outside are Liars – they will do anything to trick you and bring you over to their side of greed and Curiosity. And worst of all, if you are not Inside on your thirteenth birthday in order to complete your ceremony, you are doomed to the Darkness forever. And so Zylynn has ten days to fight her way back to the compound and Father Prophet.
Zylynn was abused. Horrendously. The people on the compound were starved – Zylynn was twelve years old but had been so malnourished that a doctor was convinced she was eight. She was hardly bigger than her six year old half-sister, Elsie. Other forms of punishment included being pelted with rocks. Oh and every night they were given drugged tea. Zylynn didn’t see this as strange or abnormal though, but god was it heartbreaking. She couldn’t believe how fortunate she was on the Outside, and convinced herself that everyone was lying to her to trick her. She couldn’t possible have lunch every day, right? There’s no way this sandwich or this plate of pancakes and strawberries could be just for her. She was so used to being starved, that she would take food from her meals and hide it under her bed.
Which brings me to Zylynn’s parents. Zylynn’s mother lives on the Inside still – and on the Inside, kids, men, and women are all separated, so Zylynn never sees her mother. In fact, Zylynn doesn’t even understand the words “mom” and “dad” and “daughter.” But when she is taken from the compound to live with Louis, her father, and Charita, her stepmother, her world begins to change. Let’s have a standing ovation for Charita, first of all, stepmother of the century. Charita gave Zylynn all these things Zylynn didn’t think she deserved: warm meals, every day; hugs to make her feel whole, patience, new words, kindness. While Zylynn took a long time and a lot of work to open up to her father, Charita was there for her and there were so many moments between the two of them that made me wish I had a Charita in my life.
Louis, Zylynn’s father, was a complicated character. He used to live Inside, but he left a number of years ago, and now he has a new family with Charita and their three children. He’s closed off – at least through Zylynn’s eyes. He’s nervous around her and you can just tell he is overburdened by guilt for leaving her with the Children Inside the Light. It could be so easy to dismiss him as neglectful, but as the pages go by, you start to understand him, even if Zylynn doesn’t.
As a bystander to this story, you know the Children are no good. You know that Father Prophet is a predator and you know that all of his bullshit is just that – bullshit. But Zylynn lived her entire life Inside, being fed the lies. Father Prophet’s screed is so ingrained in all of her thought processes, and those things aren’t unlearned in just a few days. I thought the author did an amazing job at showing the balance between Zylynn’s natural wonder at this new world she is discovering, and her guilt and determination to get back to the Light. Zylynn, too, has a unique perspective on the world you and I live in; she doesn’t understand things like Target, or pictures, or even houses and neighborhoods and grandparents. She had to learn all these things we take for granted, like changing your clothes every day and using shampoo. It was intriguing and thoughtful, the way this was written.
I knocked it down half a star because of a writing tic. Zylynn apparently had no grasp on time. She would over and over again say things like “weeks or maybe months” or “minutes or hours or days” and it was frustrating. Because we learn later on in the book that Zylynn does understand time perfectly well, so I’m not sure about the addition of that little quirk and what it really added to the story.
I’m also confused about what category this belongs is. Because yes, the protagonist is a child but that doesn’t really mean much in the grand scheme of things. There are plenty of Adult books with child protagonists. And the way this is written, with so much information left for the reader to parse through and put together themselves… I don’t know. I am not saying that middle grade kids can’t do this or that they don’t meet the level of sophistication for this at all. But it’s not like any other middle grade that I’ve read before. (To be fair, I mostly read MG fantasy, so there is that.)
Honestly though, I’d recommend this to just about anyone who reads contemporary. This is at once a very scary look into living in a religious cult, a character study, and story about family. It rips your heart out, but rest assured it sews you back together again.