Full Tilt
Neil Shusterman

Do you know what it is like to be the one that holds everything together? Everything around you seems to be spinning out of control, and you are the only sane one in the whole mess. Your dad left you years ago, and now your mom has a different boyfriend every month – or so it seems. Then there is your little brother – your polar opposite. Everything you are – he isn’t. He’s loud, defiant, and self-absorbed. You are constantly saving him from getting in to trouble. The two of you are totally different in every way – or so you think. Through a series of bizarre, unreal circumstances you discover that you are not all that different from each other, and, in fact, you need each other more than you ever thought was possible.

Blake, his friends Russ and Maggie, and his younger brother Quinn are enjoying an afternoon at Six Flags. Right before they leave, Blake wins an odd stuffed bear at a ball toss booth. In the bear’s pocket, there is an invitation to a special carnival. Later that evening, Quinn is found in a coma, and Blake realizes that Quinn has gone to the carnival in seek of thrills and adventure. In order to save his younger brother and bring him out of the coma, Blake must go to the mysterious carnival and finish seven rides before dawn. Sounds simple, right? There is something different about this carnival, though, which makes it different. Every ride is filled with traps and dangers which threaten to take Blake’s life. Each ride forces Blake to face and overcome his deepest rooted fears, and each ride gets more dangerous as the stakes get higher. In order to save his brother, and himself, Blake must face his fears, overcome them, and be standing after seven trips through hell before the sun rises. Will good win out in the end? Or, will Blake’s fears be too much for him to overcome?

I was absolutely captivated by this book. I found that even at 24, I could relate to Blake and many of his personal struggles and character qualities. I have definitely felt as if I was the only stable thing in an otherwise unstable world. I am use to being the go-between and peace maker. I found myself rooting for Blake to make it to the end. I was able to empathies with his feelings of despair in the midst of seemingly hopeless circumstances. I almost felt like I accomplished something every time he got up, dusted himself off, and kept going. I also found that the book stirred up feelings of hatred toward the evil character, Cassandra, the force that drove the park. She was the one that was always casting doubt on the situation, and I have had my share of those as well. I think that made me cheer even harder for Blake to succeed.

Shusterman does a masterful job of suspending the plot with just the right mix of adventure and suspense. This was a very creative way to address many issues that upper elementary and junior high students face in their own lives such as insecurity, divorce, problems with friends and siblings, and overcoming fears. Students can learn a lot about self-awareness, forgiveness, and the different dynamics of friendship from reading this book. It is very well-written and easy to read. The chapters are not too long, and the book moves along at a good pace to keep the readers’ attention. I think the book is better suited for boys because of the areas of life it addresses, and the fact that the protagonist is a boy, with no real central female figure except the evil Cassandra. This book is more advanced than something I would probably use in my classroom simply because I do not plan on teaching middle school. All in all, I enjoyed the book, and I think it has a lot of good things to teach, but I probably would not use it as part of my own. - MM