This is one of those books that made such an emotional impact on me that I am not sure that I can do it justice in a review, so I am going to start by simply saying that I think everyone over the age of 13/14 should read it; teenagers, parents, carers, grandparents and anyone who in any way works with or on behalf of young people. It is a profoundly moving novel written in free verse and inspired by the stories posted on the website, Everyone’s Invited, where young people posted their school experiences of sexual harassment and even rape by fellow pupils. It is hard-hitting but necessary in a climate where some voices continue to be shouted down by aggressors and abusers can be enabled by systematic failings.
Author and teacher Louisa Reid has fictionalised and coalesced these reports into a narrative which is presented in the rawly emotional voice of Cassie, a determined, articulate and vulnerable sixth former who decides to take action when adults in authority fail the children in their care. Reading this harrowing but ultimately uplifting narrative in poetic form tapped directly into my emotions and I feel sure will make all readers empathise with those who have suffered from either physical, verbal or online abuse. The portrayal of a misogynistic, sexist, abusive culture at an exclusive fee-paying school, where the teachers appear to collude with the braying bullies in making female pupils feel entirely unprotected and unsupported, made me seethe with anger in the same way as Cassie. Her indefatigable spirit as she fights to get the voices of girls heard by her mother and grandparents as well as school staff is eye-opening. The constant advice from adults to just keep quiet and accept things as they are for the sake of a good education, and to open doors to better prospects, reflects the lack of change in attitudes by some sections of society and the continuation of inequalities. It is heartbreaking to realise that in the 21st century, females are still battling to have their truth listened to.
Silence isn’t golden, as they say,
a sea of drowning
I think this narrative of a relatable teenager encouraging others to stand up for what is right and finding her strength even when she is at her most vulnerable will be incredibly inspiring for all teenagers to read. There is nuance here, with some boys showing abhorrence at the behaviour of their peers and exhibiting solidarity with the girls; the range of behaviours portrayed by different characters could be used to prompt discussions in PHSE lessons. The second storyline of a campaign to save a local woodland from the greed of developers is an interesting parallel; the pillage of mother nature and an environment where Cassie and her friends previously found solace, emphasising the brutal way that some people take what they want with no thought for the rights or needs of others. I certainly recommend that all secondary school librarians should purchase a copy of this book, and suggest that staff as well as pupils read it; I know that Cassie’s story will live long in my heart. Louisa Reid’s writing is searingly honest, every word perfectly chosen to deliver maximum impact. I have not read any of her previous verse novels but I will certainly be seeking them out after reading Activist.
I am most grateful to Bella Pearson at Guppy Books and Liz Scott who sent me an advanced copy of Activist in exchange for my honest review. It will be published on 12th October and can be pre-ordered from all the usual sellers now.