I somehow didn’t realize when I picked up Invisible Son by Kim Johnson (Random House, June 2023) that this young adult novel was labeled a thriller. The fast-paced story keeps the reader interested with intrigue but also a number of interesting and relevant subplots and a group of loveable characters. Andre is hoping to clear his name after being set up and sent to juvenile detention, but his return to society is not what he expected. Initially, it is just his ankle monitor keeps him trapped in a limited area, but when the COVID-19 pandemic closes down his school and community, he finds himself even more restricted. His senior year of high school will certainly not end as he anticipated.
Andre’s quest to prove himself innocent is not just about himself. As a Black young man in Portland, he feels he has been unfairly targeted, and he feels that his own innocence would help all Black teenagers stand up to the unfair juvenile detention system and racial profiling methods. Given the setting of spring 2020, Andre’s journey to proving his innocence includes the complex and yet very real situations surround George Floyd and the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as an applicable situation in which Andre is reported as suspicious in his own neighborhood since he is a Black teenager walking at night.
Race is a continuing theme with Andre’s personal friendships. His next-door neighbor Sierra has always been close to him, and since her brother is missing ever since Andre’s arrest, she joins Andre in seeking for the truth and proving his innocence. Sierra and her missing brother are Black teenagers adopted by white parents. The Whitakers had also adopted a Latino teenager, Luis, and this mixed race cast of characters allows the author the explores the complex issues that race brings to the spring of 2020. This includes not just the George Floyd situation and the COVID-19 pandemic, but also the inequalities in education and healthcare.
I’m fascinated with the portrayal of the pandemic in current literature. It’s so recent. Many readers will, like me, again feel the chaos and stress that we had as these characters go through their own stressful time. Sick family members, closed businesses, and political banter about wearing masks are all very real to these characters. The author brings the scene and setting of spring 2020 to life in Andre’s circle.
At first, I thought I may not relate at all to a book about a Black teenager returning home from juvenile detention. I was wrong. I not only could relate to the strong emotions, but the setting and story gave me a window into how a good portion of the world lives. Everyone’s pandemic experience is so unique.
Invisible Son also explores so many more issues: adoption, mental health, depression, multi-generational homes, small businesses, poverty, forgiveness, 1980s and 1990s music, neighborhood gentrification, and, on top of it all, a thrilling journey of discovery. As for the thriller aspect, I hadn’t anticipated such a heart-racing series of events as Andre and his friends get closer to finding the truth. I highly recommend Invisible Son.
I voluntarily read and reviewed an advance review copy of this book provided by the publisher via NetGalley. All thoughts and opinions are my own.