The Riverman

rivermanWritten by Aaron Starmer

Ingredients: Late 1980s. Jr. High School. A girl born 12 years ago who is 13 years old. A tape recorder taped to the girl’s handlebars that always plays heavy metal, unless you listen very carefully. A boy asked to write the biography of said girl. A buried map covered with names of children. An old van full of contraband. A magical world where children can imagine up anything they want. An annoying friend with a video game addiction. A creepy uncle. A magical world where children are losing their souls. A girl who may be in actual trouble in the actual world.

Wow, mind blown by this book in every good way. The mood, the characters, the questions and ideas stayed with me for a long time after reading it, and I will probably go back to it again for a re-read at some point in the future. I love the ambiguity over whether one is reading the return-to-real-life interlude/aftermath of a children’s fantasy adventure story, or the harrowing, realistic story of an abused child with a confused, cryptic cry for help, and the rash decisions made to try to help her. Because of this ambiguity we end up with a rich story that is both of these things, and more. Besides an incredibly engaging story filled with great characters, there is so much going on here exploring the nature of storytelling, creativity, plagiarism and “authorship,” unreliable narrators, the malleability of memory, the fine line between fantasy and reality and the many ways that people live in fantasy worlds of their own creation.

Recommended to readers who like middle grade mystery books that are realistic but contain a skeptical possibility of magic, such as When You Reach Me, Doll Bones, or even possibly Bridge to Terabithia, but are ready for something a little darker and borderline young adult. Also recommended for readers who like sly fantasies such as The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland and Splendors and Glooms but could go with something more contemporary. Most particularly recommended for anyone who has ever wondered what life is really like for the children who come back from Narnia or Neverland. This is an ideal book for the junior high age group, and I’m not sure I’d recommend it to many kids under 12. They’d need to have exhausted most of the children’s options (such as my RIYLs listed above) before I would push it. [Middle grade content warning: contains some violence, minor swearing, references to alcohol usage, and a couple of instances of crude sexual innuendo of the jr. high variety. (This book reads older than it would appear to from the cover illustration.)]

Review by Joshua Whiting, Librarian, Granite School District
Rating: ★★★★★ (5 stars)
Interest Level: Grades 7-9

Author Website:

The Riverman
Written by Aaron Starmer
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
310 pages
Release Date: March 18, 2014
ISBN: 9780374363093 (hardcover)

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