Oliver, Lauren. Panic. Harper, 2015.
There’s a truth universally accepted by gray-haired parents and teachers everywhere: teenagers can be fearless. This attribute is blamed on everything from still developing brains to a lack of understanding about the finality of rash decisions. No matter the cause, the thought of my students endangering themselves by engaging in risky behavior puts me immediately on edge. Perhaps that was why I found Lauren Oliver’s Panic such a suspenseful, engaging read.
In the small, downtrodden town of Carp, there are few opportunities for young people to thrive. Drug addiction runs rampant and leaving for college is a rarity. The town’s desolation led to the creation of Panic, a game reserved for recent high school graduates. The game features a series of increasingly dangerous dares until one lone victor remains. The winner is awarded a handsome cash prize—a little over sixty thousand dollars gathered from mandatory weekly dues. There’s a shroud of secrecy around the organizers and judges of the event, and the stakes are high. A past participant has even been paralyzed.
Dodge and Heather are two participants in Panic. Heather doesn’t know why she joined in—emotional after a split from her boyfriend, she impulsively leaped into the festivities. Dodge, on the other hand, has a clear motive for participating: thoughts of his sister, Dayna, at home in a wheelchair motivated him to seek revenge. As the challenges grow in difficulty and danger, Dodge and Heather bandy together. Will either of them win Panic? Will Dodge secure justice for Dayna? And when Panic causes a death in Carp, will the game shut down for good?
I’m not exaggerating when I say that this book kept me on the edge of my seat. Oliver continually increases suspense and anticipation throughout the narrative. In fact, during a silent reading period at school, a student walked by me as I read Panic and remarked, “Wow. You look intense.” Oliver’s language and description are also masterful. There are so few novel ways to describe fear or anguish, but Oliver’s descriptions are visceral and gritty, contributing to the overall mood of the book.
If there are any flaws in Panic, they perhaps lie in its believability—the idea that a large group of teens could get away with such a dangerous activity year after year with minimal attention from the police. I was bothered, too, by the pot of money in the game, and the fact that high school students are required to contribute to it. This detail felt far-fetched.
Still, Panic is quite possibly one of the most thrilling novels I have read in some time. Excerpts from this novel could teach students a great deal about literary suspense. Panic would also be helpful in showing students how an author can create a certain mood through sensory details and diction. If you’re looking for a book that would appeal to your students’ adventurous natures, Oliver’s novel is perhaps the perfect fit.