I spent a long time puzzling over how I felt about The Cheerleaders… until I realized that the amount of time I spent processing the ending was as good a reason as any to strongly recommend this book. Based on the title and cover, I was expecting something campy—dark, but a little silly. Certainly simple. The book I read was dark, yes, but not silly—and a long way from simple. This is YA at its best: it trusts its readers, doesn’t hold back, and gives them a lot to sink their teeth into.
On the subject of “not holding back”—this is definitely more suitable for the older end of your typical YA age range. I’m going to put a full list of content warnings at the end of this review, but you can expect The Cheerleaders to delve into many of the more mature topics YA likes to dip its toes into—and many that I’ve never seen tackled in YA before.
To give you a sense of what I mean, let me show you where our story begins:
Monica, a high school junior, is having a rough day. The five-year anniversary of her older sister’s suicide, which followed the deaths of four of the sister’s friends, is approaching. She’s in a lot of physical pain, the result of a chemical abortion she recently swallowed her last pill for. The 25-year-old man who impregnated her at the end of a summer fling has recently been hired to coach at her high school. And that’s before all the everyday struggles of family frustrations, academic stress, and defending her position on the hyper-competitive dance team.
After watching all that roll out in the first couple chapters, I was pretty concerned about the direction it was heading. The barrage of provocative topics was a little overwhelming, and I was worried that these subjects were being raised for shock value and then discarded, but this pace doesn’t hold. It’s a lot to take in at once, but after the opening chapters, we’re slowly immersed into Monica’s fully fleshed-out perspective, for which all that groundwork was necessary.
The mystery slowly unfurls through Monica’s first-person exploration in the present and some more limited flashbacks in her sister Jen’s perspective shortly before Jen’s death. I thought the mystery was perfectly paced—I was always trying to get one step ahead of Monica, following red herrings and rabbit holes, but I was never able to quite predict what would happen next.
Making an exciting murder mystery out of the death of a teenager is hard. When you’re dealing with a death so tragic and unexpected, it can be difficult to treat the subject with the gravity it deserves without making the reading experience unbearable. It’s even more difficult when the protagonist is as personally affected as Monica was by the death of her beloved sister and four other girls she knew personally. Thomas navigates The Cheerleader’s layered tone very skillfully. The excitement never crosses over into camp and the darkness never feels false.
The book is billed as a murder mystery, and it certainly is, but the mystery structure is actually giving shape to a more interior, intimate story. I was anxious to know what really happened to the cheerleaders, but I was even more invested in Monica’s journey to understand her own past and present.
Unlike a traditional mystery, however, that kind of interior arc can’t always be nearly solved. Through the very end, the story resists simplicity, offering a world in which teens can’t always understand situations from the inside and not every important question can be answered.
While I felt satisfied by the last chapters, I was left with a great deal to think about. Thomas leaves much up to her readers—not just in terms of Jen’s true story, but in regards to those mature topics I’ve mentioned. If you’re looking for a book to teach a young reader about these difficult topics, this isn’t it. Much more valuable, I think, is The Cheerleaders’ gentle offer of genuine insight in the form of a complicated, difficult protagonist whose journey to understanding her own story is only beginning.
I want to shove this book (along with The Astonishing Color of After) in the face of anyone who doesn’t understand what YA is. It’s not a reading level, it’s a point of view, and Thomas leverages the young adult perspective perfectly to keep the mystery interesting and inventive. She trusts her readers to work with Monica to solve the mystery, to grapple with the difficult and mature issues she raises, and to receive the story with intelligence and strength. This book is not really “meant for me” –it’s not a genre I gravitate towards, but I can’t help but give it the full five stars for flawless execution on a really difficult concept.
Death of a family member (multiple, some on-page), death of loved ones, grieving
Child abuse, domestic abuse
Suicide, suicidal thoughts
Moderate/serious physical violence (on- and off-page)
Car accident with death, graphic descriptions of injury
Police shooting (off-page)M
As always, if you’d like more information about those content warnings, feel free to reach out to me here or on Twitter.