Kerry Winfrey
July 12, 2014 8:48 am

Colleen Rowley is just trying to get through her senior year. She’s hanging out with her best friends, dreaming of getting into Harvard, working super hard to be valedictorian, and dealing with a ton of social and academic pressure. But she’s handling it all pretty well. . .that is, until things start getting weird.

Super-perfect popular girl Clara has a sort-of-seizure in the middle of class. That’s unusual enough, but soon other girls start developing their own problems. One girl loses all her hair, one girl can’t walk, and one girl can’t stop coughing. Colleen’s school is gripped with a mysterious epidemic, and no one knows who will be next. . . .or what’s causing their various symptoms.

Katherine Howe’s Conversion is a smart look at the way our society tends to react during inexplicable crises. Just because there’s no real way to figure out what’s happening to the girls doesn’t mean everyone can’t speculate! You might remember the story of similarly afflicted teenage girls in Le Roy, New York. As Katharine Howe explains in the author’s note at the end of the book, she was inspired by the case and the national media attention it received. I don’t want to tell you too much about what happened, since the book is a lot better if there’s some element of surprise, but it’s really fun to see all the parallels between the real-life case in Le Roy and Howe’s fictionalization of it in Conversion.

There’s another element to Conversion that makes it more than just a retelling of the Le Roy story. The chapters about Colleen and her friends are interspersed with chapters from Ann Putnam’s point of view. While Colleen’s chapters take place in 2012, Ann’s take place in 1706 in Salem Village…and if you’re a history buff, you can probably already figure out what’s going on there (and if you can’t, here’s another hint: Colleen’s class is reading The Crucible).

Although Ann’s sections were interesting, I loved hearing Colleen’s point of view. Colleen is smart (duh, she’s trying to get in to Harvard), and reading her voice definitely gave me some high school flashbacks (although my school was nowhere near as competitive). Even though Colleen’s clearly smart, and Howe’s writing is wonderful, I also liked that she felt like a real teenager. Sometimes in YA, characters can end up saying things that don’t sound like teenager-speak at all. Instead, their words just sound like an adult’s idea of what teenagers say. There’s nothing wrong with that in moderation, but I loved that Katherine Howe’s characters all sounded like authentic (if highly intelligent) teenage girls. The references all felt up to date, and one creepy ex-teacher was described as looking like James Franco. As much as I enjoy James Franco as Daniel Desario in Freaks and Geeks, I think even he would admit that “sort of creepy ex high school teacher” would be a great role for him.

Conversion is a great pick for those of you who typically read contemporary YA, but it will satisfy any history lovers out there, too. It even has some mystery and suspense thrown in, too! Basically what I’m saying is that Conversion is a good read, no matter what you’re into.

You can check out Katherine Howe’s website here or find her on Twitter @katherinebhowe. What about you guys? Have you read Conversion, or do you plan to check it out? Let me know in the comments! And, as always, I love to hear your suggestions for books to feature in Young Adult Education. Leave a comment, send me an email at youngadulteducation@gmail.com or find me on Twitter @KerryAnn.

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