The Strangers by Margaret Peterson Haddix

  • Age Range: 8-12
  • Grade Level: 3-7
  • Series: Greystone Secrets (Book 1 of 3)
  • Print length: 399 pages

I so very much wanted to love this book. Don’t get me wrong, I liked it. The writing was good, and the author told a good story but there were a few issues I had that kept it from being a 5-start book in my opinion.

But before we get to my review let’s talk about the set up for the book. This is important.
The Strangers follows the three Greystone children, Chess, Emma, and Fin when their life is turned upside down and their mother disappears. They come home and see their mother distraught over three kids that have been kidnapped in another state. Except this isn’t just any kidnapping. Those three kids have the same names and birthday as Chess, Emma, and Fin. They wake up the next day to find out their mom is suddenly leaving on a work trip that day and as if that isn’t enough they’re staying with one of their mom’s friends who they don’t really know. And their life just gets weirder from there.

What this book does well

In classic Margaret Peterson Haddix style the book is exciting and fast-paced. Each chapter is short and has something to figure out, something that will drive you to read one more page, one more chapter.

The characters all have very distinct voices which makes them seem more real. Each chapter is told from a different kids viewpoint, rotating through Chess, Emma, and Finn in turn. I enjoyed seeing through each kid and loved I could tell their voices apart even without the chapter illustrations and titles showing whose head I was in.

This last thing is so important. Emma is the smartest kid. Not only that but she loves math. She sees the whole world through math. In our society math has been gendered for boys. Starting around middle school girls often take on the identity of disliking math. Having Emma be the smartest and great at math serves as an important role model for the readers of this book, regardless of their gender.

What this book could have done better

I have two main issues with the book that takes it from 5 stars, to 3 1/2 stars: the plot twist and characterization.

The Plot Twist
I want to start by saying the story is well written. None of my issues are with the style of the prose or the author’s ability to tell a story. My biggest problem is with the plot twist that happens about halfway into the book.

When I read the book blurb I expected a mystery/thriller. As I read this expectation is upheld with each event that happens. Even though things get weird, the whole first part of the book seems to take place in “spy world”. Spy world is my term for the usual rules that are true for a story in the thriller genre. This allows for some fairly fantastical explanations of events, stopping short of things that would cross the book over into the sci-fi or fantasy genre. While there is a lot of overlap, in my opinion, /experience in fantasy and sci-fi the fantastical elements are shown very early in the book.

As the Greystone kids try to solve the mystery of where their mother has gone they come upon a text message that says she isn’t coming back, ever. They discover an email from their mother written in a secret code that only they can decipher. The first half is exciting with the kids sneaking around looking for clues, having late-night planning sessions to figure out the answers.

All of this tracks with the genre expectations of a thriller. And then the kids break the code.

This is where the whole story unexpectedly takes a turn into science fiction. And I was floored. After finishing the book I even went back to reread the first half to see if there were clues leading up to this revelation that suggested the twist and I had just missed them. Nope. There was some weirdness and unexplained events but none of it pointed to a science-fiction solution. Even the book blurb on the back doesn’t mention anything that feels science-fiction-y. Honestly, the cover does the best job of showing a hint of what may be coming.

I want to point out that the genre bait and switch could be a problem for me because I’m an adult, not in the book’s target audience. I have had many years of exposure to thriller stories and so I’ve built a thriller/spy world set of rules and expectations. A kid in 5th — 6th grade who hasn’t had as long to build their genre expectations might not be as off-put by the change. They may just perceive it as a really cool twist.

As I said, it is well written and even this out of left field revelation didn’t stop me from wanting to find out what happens. If the genre promise, the blurb, and the first half of the book had made suggestion of science fiction, the twist wouldn’t have been a problem. As it stands, I felt a little lied to.

Characterization

The other issue I have with the book has to do with how much the kids worry. I love when middle-grade books have characters that act like kids and not like mini-adults. And on this front Haddix succeeded. However I think she may have gone a little too far.

The chapters rotate between Chess, Emma, and Finn which does give you a fairly complete perspective of what happens. If you are considering the intended audience of the book, the rotating pov’s would also allow a 5th grader and 7th grader to read the book because you don’t spend the whole thing looking through the eyes of one character.

The problem comes in with how much each kid worries. We spend a lot of time reading each character’s thoughts in addition to what they are actually saying and doing. It is completely reasonable that the kids would worry; that each child would have concerns and nerves about the situation. But when you combine the rotating POV with displays of nerves from each kid you end up with a lot of worrying. Too much. Even during the climax they were worried. At one point I had to wonder how they managed to get anything done.

This is even addressed in the text when Finn says, “Does it scare you that much when you don’t know stuff?” … “You should all remember what it’s like to be a second-grader. There’s lots of stuff I don’t know or understand, and I’m fine.” Unfortunately, this doesn’t stop the kids from being scared and having it shown to us every chapter.

Is this how kids experience the world?

If the situation were real, I’m sure yes this portrayal would be accurate. I don’t want that in my fiction. Even if gaining confidence is part of the overall character arc I would’ve liked to see a little more growth shown in book 1. Just as it is reasonable for the kids to worry, it is also reasonable to have a kid going into a situation with more confidence than they might have if they could see the adult perspective.

As for the ending, The book ends but the mystery isn’t wholly solved. You definitely have to read book two to find out what happens next. Meaning this isn’t for readers who prefer stand alone novels over series.

All in all, I enjoyed the story. The writing kept me flipping pages even after the genre switch halfway through.

; TLDR 3 1/2 — 4 stars ⭐️⭐️⭐️

This is a great fast-paced story that has enough interest to sustain a 5th grader through a 7th or 8th grader. It is well written and keeps you turning pages. As long as you expect a giant genre-bending twist in the middle I think you’ll love it.

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