Nerds Heart YA: ‘Lost’ vs. ‘Rowan The Strange’

Meg: OK, Nicole. Two great young adult novels. Two great main characters. I think I know what my pick is, but I’m reserving judgment until I hear you out. Do you know your pick for the Nerds Heart YA tournament?

Nicole (of Linus’s Blanket): I know what my choice will be.  Is your decision at all different from what you thought it would be?  I definitely had ideas before I even started reading the books which I would like better.

Meg: I’m definitely with you: before we started, I thought that for sure my pick would be Lost. The subject matter — historical fiction, New York, a strong woman working in a factory and supporting her family — seemed much more up my alley. From the beginning, I hated the cover of Rowan The Strange — and, to be honest, seemed a little creeped out by the subject matter. A disturbed 13-year-old boy? An insane asylum? You’re joking, right? But . . . I loved it. I loved Rowan. It shocked the pants off me, but it’s true. How did you feel?

Nicole: Me too!  I love that time period (the early 1900’s- NYC).  And when I saw that it would be about women working in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory I really felt bad for the other book that had to go up against it.  The deck seemed to be stacked against whatever would be competing. And you are so right about the cover of Rowan the Strange.  I wasn’t looking forward to reading the book at all when I was judging by the cover.  I also wondered how they were going to frame a story about mental illness and an insane asylum, but I loved Rowan. He was such a strong character, so thoughtful and well fleshed out.  The suspense in the story was killing me.  I just need to know what would happen to him next.  It was interesting because both novels ended up being about mental illness, and both were historical.

Meg: The cover is creeptastic! But there was something so endearing about Rowan and his struggles — and the fact that he wasn’t wholly good or wholly bad. He was a real person dealing with some pretty extreme circumstances. The backdrop of World War II was a brilliant choice by Hearn. There was so much going on in that book, it was crazy, but once I started reading — I couldn’t put it down. You’re totally right about the suspense: there was such a sense of foreboding. I had to find out what was going to happen to him, too.

Nicole:  That is what I liked about him the best, he was a regular boy, just trying to figure things out. I though the frame of World War II and the connections that were made between the fear that was rampant was great  I cared about all of the stories.  The story with Dr. Von and how they worked that element in there was fantastic.  It was amazing that when you think about it, not much happened in the book, but it was so suspenseful and such a page turner, quite an accomplishment.

Nicole: Which order did you read the books in?  I read Rowan and then Lost, and for me there wasn’t much of a comparison between the two.  It was a shocking upset, because I really thought I would like Lost.  I think it gave a great overview of the time period but it was missing something.  For one, I just never warmed to Zelda.  I know she was supposed to be cute and precocious, but she never warmed to more than annoying brat for me.

Meg: I read Lost first and absolutely loved it — read it in one sitting until the wee hours of the night. I really related to Essie and loved the strong narration, plus that sense of foreboding. I agree that Zelda could definitely be a brat, but I did love her — if only because I loved Essie, and Essie cared so deeply for her. But after I read Rowan The Strange — a book I didn’t expect to enjoy, as we mentioned — there was no way that one wasn’t head-and-shoulders above Lost — if only because it was so unlike anything I’d ever read, and dealt with such a different subject. Was that your upset, too? Is Rowan your winner?

Nicole:  Rowan is definitely the winner for me.  I’m glad we agree! I think you definitely enjoyed Lost more than I did.  I thought it was well-written, but while I knew why I should be connecting with the characters, I never did.

Meg: I’m sorry Lost didn’t work as well for you — totally see where you’re coming from, though. And awesome news that we’re both big Rowan fans! Such a strong book, and considering it has a male lead character and such a fantastic setting, I’m excited to see it move forward. I really agree with what you said earlier about Dr. Von, too — to make someone we were predisposed to disliking so sympathetic was nothing short of amazing. In fact, everything I expected to find in the book was different. I thought, for instance, that Rowan’s family would be the stereotypical “my son is crazy!” lot, desperate to get rid of him and forget he ever existed. But not so. And Dr. Von? Definitely thought I had his number — but I was wrong again. The book was so different than I expected. That’s what I loved about it.

Nicole:  I was genuinely touched by some parts in Lost, but there were some sections that were just ho-hum.  To be honest it might have suffered for me because I have read some about the time period and place depicted in lost and I felt like I was really told more than shown how hard their lives were, and just what their communities looked like.  Essie was so in denial that it was hard for me to get a sense of urgency from her, or to feel as much as I would have liked. I was surprised to see that Rowan is the third in a series of books, so there is more where that came from!  Rowan was very surprising in every way.  I was totally absorbed and invested and yet could predict nothing.  When is the last time that has happened in a book?

Meg: Exactly. Anything I predicted was totally wrong.

Nicole:  So?  How to sum up?  I think we liked both stories.  They were both historical fiction novels dealing with some aspects of mental behaviors.  You liked Lost quite a bit more, but do we agree that the writing in Rowan kicked it up a notch?

Meg: Yes — absolutely. Rowan had everything: family dynamics; illness; courage; imagery; awesome, atmospheric setting. Hearn is a master. While I really liked Lost, it couldn’t compare to Rowan for me.

Nicole: So there you have it… Rowan the Strange for the win!  I wonder what it will compete against?  I’m invested!  *bites nails*

Meg: Me too — can’t wait to see our little Rowan out there in the world! We’ll be watching . . .


Visit Nerds Heart YA to see which young adult books, chosen for being under represented within the genre, will be advancing to the next round — and keep an eye out for Rowan The Strange!

Book review: ‘Rowan The Strange’ by Julie Hearn

In a classic case of don’t judge a book by its cover, Julie Hearn’s Rowan The Strange is a moving, emotional and unforgettable read centering around 13-year-old Rowan Scrivener, a British teen battling “voices” in his head. It’s 1939 and England is at war — just as the battles begin in the Scrivener home. When Rowan accidentally harms his young sister, his parents decide it’s time to take him where he can get well: an asylum in the countryside.

Under the care of Dr. von Metzer, a German with experience in mental illness, Rowan undergoes electric shock therapy — and develops interesting new personality traits. While undergoing treatment, he meets Dorothea, a young woman who believes each of us has a guardian angel looking out for us. Spirited, angry and sarcastic, Dorothea “runs” the ward where Rowan stays — which, for a while, includes just the two of them.

The unlikely friends work through their issues together as they prepare for the Christmas pantomime, a play the asylum’s attendees put on each holiday season. After Rowan is cast in a major role, he must confront his own fears to perform his part well. And maybe help others in the process.

There aren’t enough great things to say about Rowan The Strange, a book I read for the Nerds Heart YA tournament. After pulling up the book — which I could only find imported from the UK, where it is published — I immediately cringed at the creepy cover, reading the description with a growing sense of unease. A teenage boy? A mental patient? An asylum? World War II? . . . Not my usual reading fare. And I seriously considered wrapping the book to hide the cover art, so much did that blue face disturb me. (And prompted my sister to walk into the room, wrinkle her nose and yell, “What the hell are you reading?!”)

Well, I was reading Rowan. And what a strange, glorious adventure it was.

The book’s strength lies in our main character — a young boy who has no idea what’s happening to him and why, who desperately clings to the belief that someday he’ll be “normal.” Taunted as “Ro the Strange” by classmates and his sister, Rowan tries to control the voice in his head that causes him to have “panics” and do strange things, but he’s powerless to stop it. What carried me through the narrative was the belief that Rowan was, in his heart, a good person — a good son, a good brother. This wasn’t his fault. It wasn’t anyone’s fault, really, but it most especially wasn’t his.

Every preconceived notion I had about the plot proved wrong. I assumed the Scriveners would be a surly lot, angry that they had a “damaged” son, embarrassed by him and desperate to send him away. (Wrong.) I assumed Rowan would be an awkward, silly boy, dangerous and scary and just plain weird. (Wrong.) I assumed Dr. Von would be a masochist, a deranged German doctor with no regard for his patients’ well-being and only a regard for the “science” of the experiments he performed on them. (Wrong.)

In fact, I was wrong about nearly everything in Hearn’s novel — including my own belief that I would loathe this one, turning the pages as if weights were positioned on my fingers. In reality? I tore through it in record time, eager to find out what happened to Rowan and hopeful that he would find the solace he seeked. I loved his nana, a kindly woman who never once treated Rowan like he was someone to fear, and his parents, who were so supportive. Against the backdrop of World War II in London, the Scriveners managed to stay brave, strong and loving — even with their children all over the country.

You know? I just loved this book. If you get the chance, I think you’ll — surprisingly! — really love it, too. And check out Nicole’s review of this marvelous novel.

4.75 out of 5!

ISBN: 9780192729200 ♥ Purchase from Book DepositoryAuthor Website
Personal copy purchased by Meg

Rowan The Strange was read in conjunction with Nerds Heart YA, a tournament showcasing under represented young adult literature. Check back tonight to learn whether Lost by Jacqueline Davies or Rowan The Strange will advance to the next round! My decision will be made with Nicole of Linus’s Blanket and posted at 7 p.m. Tuesday.