Thursday, April 06, 2023

Girl Forgotten

Henry, April. Girl Forgotten
8 March 2023, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Public library copy

Piper Gray has been living with her mother, but since she is no longer in the picture, she has moved in with her father and his wife Gretchen and their younger children. She's not looking forward to starting at a new school in Firview (in the Pacific Northwest), and it's confusing to have her father suddenly willing to provide her with things like a brand new phone and a computer, things that her mother would not have been able to on her waitress' salary. She has met one person-- Jonas, whose dog got loose when she was out on a walk, during which she discovered the grave of a 17-year-old girl, Layla Trello. Further investigation reveals that the local girl was murdered 17 years ago. Since she is a big fan of the true crime podcast Dead, Deader, Deadest, she decides to do her school required passion project to create her own podcast, Who Killed Lauren Trello. She gets paired up with Jonas, who has a podcast of his own, and he gives her lots of good information. He has a past of his own, and was driving a car when his girlfriend grabbed the wheel during a fight, causing an accident that took her life and causes Jonas to have his leg amputated. People still blame him for the accident, so he doesn't like that Piper is causing renewed trauma to Layla's family, who still live in the area. Layla does her research, reading everything she can find on the topic, interviewing anyone she can find, including brothers who both might have had a relationship with Layla, her best friend, Layla's mother, a school resource officer who seems too friendly with young people, and even her own language arts teacher, Mrs. Wharton. She proceeds carefully, keeping the feelings of her interviewees in mind, and really wants to get justice for Layla. There are a few threats, but nothing she takes seriously. She is dealing with trauma of her own, including what really happened with her mother, and with her feelings for Jonas. When the local paper does an article on her, her listenership grows, and the woman who produces Dead, Deader, Deadest covers the story, causing some people to accuse Piper of copying! Even though she hasn't solved the murder, she plans a final podcast episode, but as she is going live with it, things fall into place in a dangerous way. Will she be able to figure out who killed Layla, or will she become an unsolved murder case herself?
Strengths: Students ask me all the time for murder mysteries. There is something innate in the human psyche that finds this topic interesting, and Henry even addresses this right in the beginning with this quote from S. Friend: "We appear to enjoy tragedy not despite, but precisely because of, the painful emotions we feel in response." Piper's Father and Gretchen are a bit concerned about her interest in the podcast, but she is able to hide a lot from them, and this interest might be in part because of the difficult circumstances in her own life. There's nothing particularly gory in the book, and while Piper is in high school, the content of this is middle grade appropriate. This is why Henry's work is so popular in my library-- it's similar to the Joan Lowery Nixon 1990s murder mysteries that offer just enough details without overwhelming younger readers. For my part, I loved Piper's clothing, and the fact that she gets her cool outfits from the thrift store, even though she seems to find a lot more true vintage clothes than have been in my local stores lately! The relationship with Jonas is nuanced but mutually respectful, Piper slowly comes to terms with her new situation, and her mother's fate is complicated. I don't want to spoil that plot line, since Henry drops lots of breadcrumbs to help readers understand, but it is a very realistic look at what some teens have in their lives these days. The details about how to produce a podcast are also excellent. I can believe that it takes seven hours of preparation to produce one hour of a podcast, but if I ever go back to recording, I'll definitely tape in a closet to improve the audio quality. 
Weaknesses: Seventeen years later, Layla's mother is still a wreck? And her father killed himself a year after Layla died? I still think parents are more resilient than this, and it always bothers me to see this kind of negative portrayal of how parents deal with grief. Also, I knew who the killer was right away, but I doubt my students will. 
What I really think: This might well be Henry's best work yet. I've already bought a copy without reading it, which I rarely do, but will probably add two more to my fall order. Great book to hand to students who enjoyed Hahn's What We Saw and who are tired of only reading about murderous GHOSTS. A must purchase for all middle school and high school libraries!

Ms. Yingling

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