Caroline B. Cooney's The Terrorist: Why It's A Challenged, Children's Novel

Sep 30, 2006
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Laura and Billy most developed characters; thought-provoking

Cons:ending; stereotypes; some unbelievable situations

The Bottom Line: Cooney has written many, popular books and this one cuts a new mold in rainy London. Remember that.

I have very mixed feelings about this 1997 novel for children in the middle school years. The Terrorist by Caroline B. Cooney has been challenged for its negative portrayal, as in stereotypes, of Arabs and Muslims and those characters truly are stereotypes. This makes for an unoriginal, disappointing ending that isn’t plausible or satisfying for me, though could be for kids. The story before that is rather disturbing as well, but the novel does have some good points.

The novel opens with eleven-year-old Billy Williams who has been happily transplanted from Boston, Massachusetts to London, England because of his father’s job. He is busily absorbing the new culture and making friends who buy American junk from him, as well as enjoying a paper route before any Londoners are awake. That morning he decides to take the exciting “tube” or Underground with a couple of school friends, but because the car is so packed he loses his friends while getting off. Suddenly a stranger explains that the boy’s friends dropped a package and Billy smilingly accepts it with a thanks. When he realizes his friends had no brown paper-wrapped package, he remembers being warned about terrorists and that he shouldn’t have done what he did. On an escalator with a sleeping baby ahead of him, he has no where to throw it and clutches it to himself and is blown up.

Already by the end of the first chapter this story is troubling. Billy’s parents had warned him about terrorists and the Underground and Billy was not rebelling. The boy didn’t seem stupid either, but it never occurred to him that he might be risking his life. His heroism makes him more mature than most American boys.

In the second chapter we meet his sixteen-year-old sister, Laura, as she begins her day. Her mind centers on needing to find a date for a dance and all the great possibilities at the international school she and Billy attend, though she is high school and Billy middle. She finds it strange that her friends there all love to study and keep up on current events. When her bus approaches the school, she wonders what’s going on and why her friends are staring at her as she gets out.

This short novel, little more than two hundred pages, shows us how after the shock Laura becomes desperate to find the killer and make sense of her brother’s death. She’s convincingly in grief as she remembers how she enjoyed living with him and also p!ssed off at him for being so independent and leaving her. The police question her and her barely-responsive parents, but they find no clues to the killer and no one claims to have done it as some terrorists do. So Laura in her paranoia begins to suspect her friends at school who have mysterious backgrounds. One girl arrives at school in a bullet-proof limousine even.

Laura really irritates her friends who reveal some anti-American sentiment. They seem to genuinely be concerned for her and one guy reminds her to not leave the school without her bodyguard. Everyone wishes they’d return to America, but the family wants to stay to better remember Billy. Many students were pulled out of the school after Billy’s death and the remaining ones wonder if Laura might be the next target.

Then the story veers off into something that’s supposed to be thrilling. Laura is befriended by an Iranian girl who was never that friendly before, who deeply hates Americans. When this beautiful girl pleads with Laura to help her escape a life behind the black veil back in her country (her brother was marrying her to an old general to be allowed back in), Laura sympathizes and finally agrees to help her. If I told you how Laura was going to help her, you would understand why Billy was killed, but Laura doesn’t figure it out until the last minute, despite wondering at the girl’s amusement.

Keeping in mind that The Terrorist was written for middle school children, it might not seem so implausible to them and read like a good mystery. Billy is a well-defined, likable character and we’d like to know why a terrorist chose him. Was it because he was American? Was it because of his dad’s unpopular job closing down factories? Then how would they know Billy would take the tube that morning?

I wonder if some American kids would really enjoy the book. Would it encourage them to get out of America and see the world? Unlikely. Would they make more friends with Muslims? Again unlikely. Is that a good, smart thing Cooney is doing? She has the family turn to religion (not Muslim), but Laura turned away from it. That seems likely. Her actions with the Muslim leading to the end do not and emphasize her foolishness. On the other hand, the Muslim girl is very cunning and resourceful. That depiction is a stereotype of how Muslims are seen by many of us and how many non-Americans perceive Americans. Stereotypical characterization isn’t a smart thing to do.

And yet The Terrorist makes children more aware of violence in the world and that they may be targeted by terrorists. Is it good that American children are aware of not being liked by a few countries and tolerated by others? Is this taking away their childhood or saving it? Cooney thinks it saves them. If you as a parent do, you might want to look at her book for your child. The book is not light reading and will disappoint as a romance, but it makes you think of what you would do in the same horrible situation.

I’ll unenthusiastically recommend it because terrorism is now much worse than in 1997.

This has been a late entry to member pestyside's Banned Book Write-off. See for other entries.

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