What Happened to Rachel Riley by Claire Swinarski

Published on January 26, 2024

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What Happened to Rachel Riley- by Claire Swinarski

Reviewed by Elizabeth DeVincenzo

Anna Hunt is a new student starting eighth grade at East Middle School in Wisconsin.  Anna and her family moved from Chicago to a small town in Wisconsin and Anna, who is bookish and sensitive, is struggling to adjust and make new friends at her school.  For her social issues class, students are assigned to write an “un-essay” and they can pick a topic of their choice.  Anna, a podcast enthusiast decides to make a podcast solving a school mystery about former popular student Rachel Riley, who is now shunned by the entire grade.  Any time Anna tries to inquire about what caused Rachel to be disliked by the whole grade, her classmates remain silent. No one will discuss what incident lead to Rachel becoming the class pariah.   Anna, who is curious and persistent, continues to find answers by interviewing Rachel’s former best friends through texts and in-person.   Anna finds out that Rachel set fire to a barn last year where the school dance was going to be held and as a result the dance was canceled.  The question is why?   Why would a conscientious student with no history of behavioral problems set fire to the venue where the school dance was going to be held?  Eventually, more students come forward to Anna with the events that led up to fire.  Anna learns about a “game” where boys got points for slapping girls on their behinds and snapping their bra straps.  The more popular the girl, the more points the boys got.   Rachel was one of the few students who was outwardly very upset with this game and decided to act against it.  However, things aren’t always what they seem, and Anna figures out that Rachel did not set the fire but covered for someone else.   Eventually Anna, with the help of students who confide in her figures, found out what really happened at the barn. Once the school administration finds out about the game, the boys who were involved are disciplined and must apologize to the girls.  Anna, who is idealistic, is satisfied with this turn of events, until she sees one of the boys several weeks later start up the game.  However, before he can continue, another boy in the group whispers something to him and the boy apologizes to the girl.  Malika, the girl who was harassed also has a word with him.  It is a small step, but a significant one.   This novel explores sexual harassment and bullying in middle school and the frustration girls feel when there is no one to advocate for them.   Highly recommended for fans of realistic fiction and works that explore current social issues.   This empowering novel would make for a lively book group discussion.   Pair this with Barbara Dee’s   Maybe He Just Likes You, another recommended middle-grade novel for the #metoo era.

Target Age Group-  Ages 8-12

“Sometimes, fairness has to be demanded instead of waited for.”- Nik Hunt- Anna’s older sister.

"What begins as a look into bullying and the social politics of middle school expands into a revealing study of sexual harassment. An empowering and empathetic companion to Barbara Dee's Maybe He Just Likes You and Brigit Young's The Prettiest." -- Booklist (starred review)- 1/2023

"This book is incredibly relevant and empowering for readers and would serve as a powerful conversation starter. Swinarski's writing is compelling and multifaceted, tackling themes of friendship, betrayal, and harassment beautifully, while keeping them accessible to middle schoolers. Hand to fans of Barbara Dee's Maybe He Just Likes You." -- School Library Journal (starred review)- 1/13/2023



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