Review: A List of Cages by Robin Roe

Hello everyone, and welcome back!

I’m finally getting around to knocking off some books I ordered ahead of time ages ago, thinking I’d be on top of reviewing new stuff, and then…let collect dust until it’s now.

To be fair to me, it’s really easy to get behind on new releases because there can be a lot of them! I’m trying to be choosier about what I order these days as I work my way through my endless TBR pile, but it’s always ridiculously tempting to buy something new and hyped and leave behind the releases no one is talking about anymore. Like this one.

Without further ado, let’s talk about it!

A List of Cages by Robin Roe

A List of Cages

A List of Cages is about and from the perspectives of two teen boys who met in a reading program (where one tutored the other), then again through foster care (where one’s mother takes in the other when his parents die), and then again in high school.

Adam hasn’t seen Julian, who he once counted as a younger brother, in years; he’s been assigned as the school psychologist’s aide, and he’s sent to collect Julian, who always misses his appointments. From there, the two rekindle a friendship.

I’ll cut to the chase here: Adam has ADHD, and I’m not sure I’m 100% comfortable with its portrayal. It’s not my call to make, since I don’t have ADHD personally, so take my opinion with a grain of salt, but it feels somewhat romanticized (like Adam’s overabundance of energy is what makes him appealing to others) and just otherwise…odd (because Adam is only treated through homeopathic remedies after having a bad experience with one medication) in this book.

I enjoyed (if crying is enjoying) All the Bright Places despite its clear anti-medication stance, but I feel like books that go out of their way to invalidate medication as a treatment plan for mental illnesses make me very wary. To each their own in terms of treatment methods (whatever works for fictional or real-life Adams), but in general I wish the stigma surrounding taking medication for mental illnesses could be lessened, and books with this bent do the opposite.

(I also enjoyed All the Bright Places despite the way it romanticized mental illness. It is a problematic book that just hit home for me. If I could go back in time, maybe I would write my review of it from a less raw place. But I think this probably happens to everyone once in a while.)

Julian, the other protagonist, is a victim of abuse. The book avoids getting too graphic about this, but if child abuse is a trigger for you, this still will be a very tough read, so be forewarned. Julian is stuck in the mindset of a younger person, partially because of the trauma of his parents’ deaths and partially because of his situation. Connecting with the older Adam allows him to have some new formative experiences with the safety net of someone who’s looking out for him.

(Although I’ll just say it: one of the weirdest things in this book is that other kids still seem to go out of their way to harass Julian when he hangs out with seniors. Isn’t it one of life’s universal rules that freshmen don’t mess with freshmen who have senior friends? Am I fundamentally misunderstanding the high school pecking order since I’ve left?)

(Also I felt weird about this book handwaving away as a fact of life girls doing strange things to make boys jealous, maybe because that whole relationship structure seems toxic and eyeroll-worthy to me. To the credit of the male protagonists, they’re not the types to get jealous of anyone. To the book’s detriment, it suggests they have this attitude because they’re “not normal.” SIGH.)

To this book’s credit, the friendship between the two boys is heartwarming, there’s some lovely imagery in the book, and I was intrigued by the secondary characters (Emerald, Charlie), although I feel like we didn’t get to know really enough about them to justify some of their more jerkish actions. (I guess the explanation for that is just that everyone makes mistakes? But knowing more about their motivations might have helped.)

I’m not exactly sure where to land on this one, to be honest. Some of the attitudes that cropped up in the writing felt icky to me (your mileage may vary), but I really did like Adam and Julian as characters, I really rooted for Julian to be happy, and there were some really lovely images and payoffs through the novel and I never tripped up reading it. (Protagonists being genuinely likeable goes a lot farther than one would think. I feel like one of the most common YA complaints is how much people hate a main character.) On the other other hand, it was a bit short and sometimes I felt like its subplots kind of dropped in and out or didn’t resolve, as if someone wasn’t sure which should be kept/cut.

Sometimes I wonder if problematic attitudes in books should equal an immediate bad rating from me. Not that I sit around recommending problematic books on purpose (though sometimes I’m sure I have without thinking or researching enough about them), but I’m not inclined to just go, “reads as anti-medication for mental illness, one star” as much as I dislike that mentality.

But sometimes I do feel like it hurts to rate a book trying to be inclusive lower than a book where the attitudes are offputting to me or offensive for others. Not that this is a textbook example; I’m sure the aim here was to be inclusive by having a protagonist with ADHD as a positive representation, despite the anti-med stance.

But…yes. I’m still trying to look at all of a book’s strengths and weaknesses and report back, so just don’t take my star ratings in a vacuum, okay? Okay. Glad we cleared that up.


Who are some of your favourite protagonists with mental illnesses? Any books to recommend where someone just…takes meds? (Again, any treatment method that works, I’m for. But you know, it’d be nice to see medication not given the huge thumbs down in every novel.) Let me know in the comments, and I’ll speak to you soon!

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