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When a ninth grader recently recommended Kelly Yang’s debut young adult novel Parachutes, I knew I wanted to pick it up. Book suggestions last spring from this student, including Marie Lu’s Warcross duology and Joelle Charbonneau’s The Testing trilogy, helped pass long nights of the early pandemic.

Similarly, Parachutes covers difficult topics with such impressive speed that I felt I was hurtling toward the end. The characters’ plot arcs dip toward each other like dueling roller coasters, in situations that test these high school students by the minute. 

The chapters alternate between the perspectives of two girls: Claire Wang, a wildly rich “parachute” student from China who travels to East Covina, California, to attend American Prep, and Dani De La Cruz, a student at the same private school whose mom takes in Claire as a boarder for the rent. Some chapters go on for a dozen pages and, toward the end, some last barely two, adding to the sense of entangled lives. 

Unlike the dystopian novels my student suggested last year, Parachutes is not an easy novel to read, as indicated by the content warning just before page one: “this book contains scenes depicting sexual harassment and rape.” By the time I reached the end, the book’s early moments seemed insidious and suspect, and the author’s note imparts a gravity that’s impossible to forget.

This YA novel also jabs at privilege and its relation to power. At one point, after noticing that Claire doesn’t know how to do laundry, Dani considers the word parachute not just in the context of students from China but also for those born in the U.S.: “Lately, I’ve been thinking it doesn’t just apply to foreign students. Heather and her friends are kind of parachutes too. They all have trust funds and safety nets protecting them if they fall. All I have is me. And if things don’t work out for me, I’d free fall.”

By the end, the roller coaster cars click ever slower as Dani and Claire realize their lives are connected in ways that give them unexpected strength – and that what may look like “free fall” actually ends up grounding important relationships.

Sarah Cooper

Sarah Cooper teaches history at an independent school just outside Los Angeles, where she lives with her husband and two sons. In her spare time, she runs, plays piano, listens to Broadway musicals and searches for good bakeries. She also loves young adult fiction.