The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner is poignant and thoughtful YA about growing up as an outsider in a small southern town

The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner is poignant and thoughtful YA about growing up as an outsider in a small southern town

The heartbreaking choices and unfurling promise of growing up are vivid and raw in this clear and insightful read about three outsiders in a small southern town.  Carefully crafted characters and poignant moments with universal resonance make for an emotional and thoughtful story that stuck with me long after I turned the last page.  The plot unerringly focuses on the moments in life, both monumental and minuscule, that force people to stretch and revise their world view.


Goodreads Summary

Dill has had to wrestle with vipers his whole life—at home, as the only son of a Pentecostal minister who urges him to handle poisonous rattlesnakes, and at school, where he faces down bullies who target him for his father’s extreme faith and very public fall from grace.

He and his fellow outcast friends must try to make it through their senior year of high school without letting the small-town culture destroy their creative spirits and sense of self. Graduation will lead to new beginnings for Lydia, whose edgy fashion blog is her ticket out of their rural Tennessee town. And Travis is content where he is thanks to his obsession with an epic book series and the fangirl turning his reality into real-life fantasy.
Their diverging paths could mean the end of their friendship. But not before Dill confronts his dark legacy to attempt to find a way into the light of a future worth living.

My Thoughts

You are going to recognize these characters.  Maybe they are just people you pass in the hallway at school, or maybe they remind you of yourself, but you will know them from the moment they are introduced.  You’ve read books about characters like Lydia, and her drive and ambition will make her easy to relate to. Travis, too, is a sidekick I’ve seen before, but his simple and complete acceptance of who he is is really a beautiful thing to behold in this book.  Dill, though, he isn’t a familiar character type.  I found him especially fascinating because he gave me some real food for thought about all those boys with dubious origins that seem to have little desire or drive to leave the small towns that ruin them.  It never occurred to me that there might be something else going on, and I’m really glad I got a chance to have a new perspective.  As far as plot, this book is fairly evenly paced, but it is more about character development and relationships than action.  There were some predictable elements, but that is part of telling the truth.  There were also some rather big surprises.  I found myself engrossed, and I think my high school readers will as well.  I do have to say this was a rather bittersweet coming of age story, and while I loved watching these characters grow and evolve, it was a little darker than I expected.  Themes about friendship, being true to yourself, and overcoming obstacles that feel insurmountable add a great deal of depth.  I really enjoyed this book, and it is definitely going on my classroom library wish list.  I would recommend it to both my guy and gal readers, and I think it will be just as engaging for adults as YAs.  Language and situations are appropriate for grades 9+.

I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.


About queenbook

When the final bell rings, I stash those messy piles of essays and analysis assignments in a desk drawer and I head home to a pile of good books. My kids and dog eat too many chicken nuggets and the house could be neater, but as long as I get my daily read, I guess we are doing all right. When I was twelve and fifteen and eighteen and twenty, I believed I needed to get out there and do those things I had just been reading about, which ended in disaster, tears, a tattoo that scares me every time I catch a glimpse of it in the mirror, and the realization that some of us are meant for action, and some of us are meant to critique the pace of action in a book. I read primarily YA fiction as I have a rather hulking classroom library and a hundred high school readers to engage daily. Nothing makes me happier than coming to school and finding an impatient teenager waiting by my door to turn in a book and get another one just like it. I adore a good zombie, a medieval princess, or girl assassin (I would like them all in one book if you are a writer looking for some inspiration). I add historical mystery to my wish list a year in advance, and you should get out of my way when the next Outlander book comes out. I have an embarrassing fondness for rock star books, but only if they don’t get too trashy and embarrass me. My favorite book of all time is The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery. My book boyfriends include Gilbert Blythe, Alonzo Wilder, and Jamie Fraser. They are mine and you can’t have them.

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