Scars Like Wings Review

Scars Like Wings is a moving, introspective story of moving past immense loss when healing is its own trauma. Through the eyes of a teenage burn survivor, Erin Stewart asks what it takes to truly choose life.



Before, I was a million things. Now I’m only one. The Burned Girl.

Ava Lee has lost everything there is to lose: Her parents. Her best friend. Her home. Even her face. She doesn’t need a mirror to know what she looks like–she can see her reflection in the eyes of everyone around her. 

A year after the fire that destroyed her world, her aunt and uncle have decided she should go back to high school. Be “normal” again. Whatever that is. Ava knows better. There is no normal for someone like her. And forget making friends–no one wants to be seen with the Burned Girl, now or ever. 

But when Ava meets a fellow survivor named Piper, she begins to feel like maybe she doesn’t have to face the nightmare alone. Sarcastic and blunt, Piper isn’t afraid to push Ava out of her comfort zone. Piper introduces Ava to Asad, a boy who loves theater just as much as she does, and slowly, Ava tries to create a life again. Yet Piper is fighting her own battle, and soon Ava must decide if she’s going to fade back into her scars . . . or let the people by her side help her fly.

Scars Like Wings gave me exactly what the early blurbs promised.

I went in expecting a raw, emotional story of a teenage survivor of immense trauma, and the book was just as painful and beautiful as I’d hoped.

“A heartfelt and unflinching look at the reality of being a burn survivor and at the scars we all carry. This book is for everyone, burned or not, who has ever searched for a light in the darkness.”

Stephanie Nielson, author of Heaven Is Here and a burn survivor (blurb for Scars Like Wings)

I very rarely cry reading, so the fact that Scars Like Wings made me tear up several times shows just how extraordinary I found Ava’s unfiltered first-person perspective.

Scars Like Wings begins only a year out from the fire that took Ava’s parents and her cousin. Ava’s physical and emotional wounds are still fresh. The moments in which Ava relives that night were more difficult than I anticipated, and I had to walk away from the book several times. Fire/burns are not a trigger for me, but I still had trouble getting through the vivid depictions of Ava’s loss.

This writing probably isn’t going to work for everyone. I’ve seen some goodreads reviews that found this aspect shallow, and some that found it overwritten. I think, for a book like this, the writing has to hit you in just the right spot. Luckily for me, the style fit me perfectly.

But the fire itself is not the real focus of the book. In Scars Like Wings, healing is its own trauma.

Scars Like Wings Paperback Cover
Scars Like Wings paperback cover

Stewart lays the imagery of physical healing on (maybe too?) thick. In order for her body to heal, Ava has to endure the painful peeling away of her ruined skin. The book begins at the moment Ava must do the same for her mind and spirit. Stepping back into the “real world” of face-to-face interaction with other teens is horribly painful for Ava (sometimes because others are being cruel, sometimes because Ava brings it on herself, and sometimes something inbetween). But much as she protests, she has to move forward if she truly chooses life.

Ava wants to think that living with her (literal) scars is now old hat; she’s used to the staring. She doesn’t blame them–she’s hideous. She knows how to live in the shadows. But the more Ava insists to the reader that she’s totally jaded, the more we get the sense that she doth protest too much. Deep down, she’s desperate for connection and community. She just can’t see how.

The “how” arrives in the form of hot pink-clad, wheelchair-using, snarky Piper.

I didn’t realize going in that Scars Like Wings is, at the core, a friendship story. And I was so happy to discover that it was! I’m always happy to see YA that puts platonic relationships at the center of the narrative, especially among young women. Ava and Piper are one of my favorite friend pairs I’ve read in recent YA. Their relationship is complicated (and sometimes dysfunctional) but unabashedly loving.

“People are the worst,” Piper says quietly.
“Except you. You totally don’t suck.”
“You should definitely write Hallmark cards.”

Piper is Ava’s manic pixie dream girl, but delightfully subverted–not just because their relationship is platonic, but because Piper is granted just as much complexity as Ava is.

Scars Like Wings Spanish Cover
The Spanish cover is gorgeous and a completely different style. It makes the book come across as more serious, which I’m not sure is a good thing. Scars Like Wings is definitely serious and emotional, but I like that the US cover conveys that it’s also offbeat and sometimes fun.

Stewart granted complexity to an unusual number of characters. If you read a lot of my YA reviews, you’ll know that’s a drum I beat often–tolerance for complexity! nuance! discomfort! The first third of the book had worried that we were venturing into the territory of flat “mean girl” villains, but Stewart cleanly avoided stereotypes by giving even the drama-queen rich snob some depth.

It can be difficult to write terrible school administrators well without making them cartoonishly evil for no reason. (Books like Rebel Girls and Heretics Anonymous come to mind, where teachers and principals come across like the adults in Percy Jackson books that turn out to be monsters, but played straight.) These adults, though, felt so real to me. I felt frustrated right along Ava by their well-meaning (and sometimes not well-meaning!) interference.

And oh my goodness… Cora. After the death of her parents, Ava is taken in my her aunt and uncle, who lost their own daughter in the same fire. Ava’s aunt (called just “Cora”) is compassionately rendered, even as she’s driving Ava up the wall. Scars Like Wings is a loving picture of the kind of stifling parental love that teens can struggle to come to terms with.

my one reservation

While this is a five-star read for me, I do have one main reservation about the book.

While Stewart says she consulted extensively with real burn survivors, including the friend who inspired the book, she’s not a burn survivor herself. I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with that. (Lifting up OwnVoices stories doesn’t mean books can only be OwnVoices.) But it does mean the book is at risk of

Ava has complicated feelings about the word “survivor. Several times, she scoffs at the labels of “miracle” or worse, “inspiration.” Scars Like Wings gets a lot of milage out of mocking the way survivors can be treated as “inspiration porn.”

That’s a really risky move. It draws attention to the ways in which the book itself can function as inspiration porn.

The letter to the reader from Delacorte Press Editor Wendy Loggia (first of all: why?) praises Ava as “much braver than I could ever be.” She writes, “We hope this book reminds you of the power of the human spirit” and emphasizes that it is for teenagers “dealing with the normal ups and downs of life.” Stewarts’ acknowledgments thank her “first inspiration” for the book for his “courage and humor and absolute knowledge that you are so much more than your scars,” and other consultants for “being examples of strength for so many.”

Stewart is pretty clear that she wants the book to serve as an inspiration about the resiliency of the human spirit for teens who haven’t experienced something similar. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, but it also makes me wonder if the book is really that much different from the efforts to frame survivors as “inspiration” that she mocks.

Content warnings for Scars Like Wings include the obvious (triggers related to fire, grief, death of family members, burns, medical trauma) as well as bullying/cyberbullying, overdose, suicide/suicidal ideation, body image, self-hate, and on-page injury.

I received an advance review copy of this title from the publisher at no charge in expectation of an honest review. No money changed hands for this review and all opinions are my own.

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