Shelter is the first book in Harlan Coben’s YA series. Our hero is Mickey Bolitar, the nephew of Myron Bolitar who is the protagonist in Coben’s adult series. It’s a fun and exciting book, but it’s pretty clearly also primarily an adult thriller scaled down for a somewhat younger audience. Mickey is a high school student, as are most of the secondary characters. There’s the (apparently) requisite strip club, but our main characters are more weirded out than titillated when they end up there. Murders, Nazis, drugs, sex slavery, and stripping all play a role, but nothing is explicitly shown.
Mickey has recently moved in with his uncle Myron because his dad was killed and his mom is in drug rehab. He’s the new kid in school, and his girlfriend—meaning girl he likes who likes him back and they’ve maybe kissed—has gone missing. He’s sure something complicated is going on, and it turns out he’s right beyond his wildest imaginings. Together with his unlikely group of new friends—Spoon, Ema, and Rachel—he tries to figure out why Ashley disappeared.
If your older tween is into crime dramas and isn’t freaked out by the subject matter of your average 10PM crime scene procedural, this might be the perfect book. Otherwise, it’s probably a bit too grown up for most tweens.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
As I mentioned earlier, the strip club that apparently must be in all gritty crime dramas is also present in this one aimed at the under 18 crowd. Mickey has always been curious and expects to be turned on, but he isn’t. It’s a dirty place, and it feels dirty to him as well. There are lots of women in skimpy bikinis, but no one is described as naked. It’s run by truly horrible people who take advantage of and torture the girls who get out of line. Nothing is explicitly sexual—it’s physical and psychological torture.
Rachel and Ema (who are both about 15) pretend they’re auditioning to work at the strip club to buy Mickey some time to snoop around. They never actually have to strip, although it’s close. When she needs to create a distraction, Rachel says she’s going to take her shirt off and all the men pay attention to her, but she doesn’t actually do it.
There’s an interesting variety of female characters in the book. And they don’t hesitate to call Mickey on his sexism when he tries to shelter them from stuff.
Ema is heavy and tattooed. When Mickey starts befriending her, she accuses him of pitying the fat girl. She refuses to let him protect her in any way. Eventually she warms up to him, and he really appreciates her for her humor and real friendship—she’s pretty much his best friend. She gets the side-eye when she goes to the strip club to audition, but some of the creepy guys there think she’s cute or hot. “Ema” is a nickname given to her by the school bullies, but she takes it and owns it.
Rachel is beautiful and popular. Mickey fears she’s only talking to him because of the allure of him being the new kid and because she’s recently ditched her jock boyfriend, but once Ema and Mickey stop making assumptions about her, they realize that Rachel is sincerely sweet and goofy. She also can’t dance for anything, which she demonstrates at the strip club audition.
Ashley, who we mostly see through Mickey’s memories, is a classic good girl type. She’s sweet and funny and he clicks with her right away. Later he learns that she’s on the run from the terrifying guy at the strip club where she used to be a dancer—nothing about her is what it seems. However, this doesn’t feel like betrayal or ruin his memories of her. He realizes they aren’t meant to be together (mostly because she’s being whisked away for her own safety and he’ll never see her again) but he will always care about her.
Spoon is an outcast who latches onto Mickey. He’s the perfect sidekick, though. He’s a bully magnet, but he keeps standing up to people. He and his dad love musicals, while his mom is into mixed martial arts. He’s a goof and seems incompetent, but he comes through and saves the day in the end.
There’s a lot about the older generation and the effects they’ve had on their kids, but adults are nearly nonexistent in the book, aside from the bad guys and the occasional cameo that hints at a bigger, more complicated world. Mickey’s dad died in an accident—although it turns out he was murdered. Mickey’s mom is a drug addict in rehab—she lasts less than a day after she’s released before she’s back on drugs. Mickey’s uncle is trying to give him space and also keep an eye on things. He’s not used to kids and is easily gotten out of the way. Ashley’s mom is the reason she’s in so much trouble. I forget if we ever learn about Ema’s parents? But she refuses to let Mickey see where she lives and she has little to no adult supervision, plus tons of tattoos despite being underage.
Nazis and the Holocaust
Of course there’s a Nazi plot. A mysterious old lady turns out to be a kid who escaped from a concentration camp and helped others escape as well. Now there’s an organization that seeks out kids in bad situations and helps those it can—and the Nazis are trying to stop it. Mickey is offered a role in the organization, most likely setting up subsequent sequels.
Mickey is beaten up really badly, for pages and pages. The bad guy has a “dungeon” under the strip club where he punishes the girls who try to get away from him and he burns a bound girl with his cigarette because he’s angry with her. There’s a lot of physical violence, but not a lot of onscreen death—not even the bad guy gets killed.
Breaking the Rules
It’s a crime thriller. Of course there’s all kinds of breaking and entering. Mickey has and uses a fake ID. The kids all lie routinely. Our heroes in a novel like this have to live outside the rules, and these kids certainly do.
Mickey’s mom is a drug addict. There’s some discussion about what this does to him, his hopes that she’s getting better, those hopes getting dashed. This is how she copes with losing the love of her life.
Mickey thinks maybe love is overrated. He never wants to love like his parents did, because he sees how his father’s death has utterly shattered his mother. He knows he didn’t really love Ashley, even though he worried about what had happened to her.
Mickey was born when his mother was 17, effectively ending her promising tennis career. His dad was 19, but they loved each other and made it work, even though they weren’t accepted by their families.
Slavery and Racism
Although it’s not discussed in any detail at all, there’s a fear that the girls who disappear from the strip club are being sold into “white slavery”—I think it’s the author’s euphemism for sex slavery, but it implies that it’s different because of the race of the girls or something. It feels outdated, out of touch, and implicitly racist as a term.
This feels like an adult thriller with training wheels, and like training wheels, it’s a step not all kids want or need. But it does offer a young protagonist and less explicit sex, nudity, and death, so for some kids it may be the perfect next step. I’d recommend it for kids 12 and up who are already watching procedural crime dramas or grown up spy action/adventure movies. Oh, and it ends on a cliffhanger, so if your kid seems to be enjoying it, figure out how to get your hands on the sequel!