With school starting back up, it seems only right to go into the world of The Testing by Joelle Charbonneau, which has become one of my favorite teen books in recent years. The first thing to know (and for me to acknowledge) is that, yes, it’s very similar to The Hunger Games, but there is so much more to the story than a cheap knockoff that I just can’t praise it enough.
The novel starts out with Malencia (Cia) Vale’s graduation day. Each year, graduates from the United Commonwealth are chosen to compete in The Testing, which chooses the best to take a place at University, where they will work toward revitalizing the world ravaged by wars and ecological destruction. Initially, it does not appear that Cia will be chosen (it’s been years since a student from Five Lakes has been) but then she and three fellow graduates are informed that they will be leaving to join other candidates for University.
There is, of course, a love interest from her home colony (Tomas) but, unlike most teen novels, there’s no real love triangle. Cia is down-to-earth enough to recognize that she is attracted to him, he is attracted to her, and that they can’t really allow their love to go unchecked in The Testing’s environment. And, even more surprising, they actually work together pretty well, there’s little angst, and I actually really liked him. This is the kind of character development that gives me hope for young adult literature. Seriously.
Anyway, Cia’s father tells her to trust no one before she goes off to what she imagines is going to be a great experience. She doesn’t understand why he’d say that, but of course, Dad knows best.
What’s really fascinating about the set-up of The Testing is that there are four stages to the whole thing. The first stage is the “paper” test – anyone who remembers (or has tried to forget) standardized testing or AP tests or the SAT/ACT/GRE, you know exactly what’s going on. This is also one of my favorite parts of the whole book because the instructor/moderator must repeat every instruction just the same so as to keep the test fair for every candidate. And you can’t help but laugh because you remember sitting there listening to the same things every time, like “if you need to use the bathroom, raise your hand; if you need to get a drink, raise your hand; if you need to go out into the hall and cry your eyes out, raise your hand.”
The second stage is a “practical” test, including tests on machinery and knowledge of deadly plant life. And this is another reason I love this book – even though The Testing is all about who can move on to University, Cia is knowledgeable about lots of practical things, too. Her father (and brothers) work on revitalization efforts in Five Lakes, so she understands engines or what plants not to eat – you know, things that might be useful in a life or death situation.
Stage three of The Testing is the dreaded “group” test. And seriously, group projects happen just like the test happens. Maybe not the same results, but definitely the overwhelming feelings of “Should I trust this person in my group?” and “If only I could do this all by myself, I’d be just fine.” This was one of the most intense parts of the book because it’s a lot of internal struggles about trust and honesty. I mean, brilliantly written.
For the final stage, the parallels to The Hunger Games is pretty obvious: those candidates who have survived to this stage are put into the wilderness and must survive a journey back to civilization. What’s different about The Testing, though, is that up to 20 candidates who make it to the end can go to University. There’s no out and out fight to the death because only one can make it, and that makes a big difference.
And that brings me to reason #1,000,002 why I love this book: it’s not all about the horrors of killing. It’s way more than that. It’s about having academic smarts and practical skills and somehow managing to balance the two while still maintaining an element of humanity. It also quietly questions the tests students experience and how the education system works – there’s a revolution that will probably happen, and probably someone’s going to say, “Hey, wait, The Testing isn’t all that great,” but it’s not the only focus of the book.
What I continue to marvel at (and I’m sure this sounds old because I’m probably just repeating myself as I keep saying I LOVE THIS BOOK) is how capably Charbonneau handles delicate subjects surrounding the testing, like the stresses of studying and the need to succeed to help your community. One of the most haunting scenes in the entire book is when one candidate commits suicide, having crumbled under the pressure of The Testing. It’s disturbing, that’s for sure, but it’s also painfully realistic. Academics and the pressure to succeed in school cause all manner of stresses in life (trust me, as a recent college grad, I know), and sometimes it’s too much. It’s the only situation in the book that makes me wonder if it’s more emotionally difficult than The Hunger Games or not, simply because it’s a much more (in my opinion) realistic. But ultimately, I walk away enjoying this much more.
Of course, I have to put in the disclaimer that I’m more academically driven in general (come on, I’m writing book reviews for fun/stress relief), so I relate more with The Testing‘s world than that of The Hunger Games. But, very seriously, I think the terrifying future portrayed in Charbonneau’s novel is frighteningly close to what could happen in the relatively near future.
I’m not even going to go back and re-read this review to make sure it sounds coherent (it doesn’t) or that it’s convincingly positive (it must be – every other sentence is I LOVE THIS BOOK). Seriously, read it. You deserve to treat yourself to something incredible. And I promise you’ll read it voraciously. And that, my friends, is your SAT word for the week.
For more on The Testing, check out the official website or visit your local independent bookstore for more info.