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The Big Four

I just read Rage by Jackie Morse Kessler (HMH, April), a follow-up to October’s Hunger. In each book, a troubled girl on the brink of killing herself (intentionally or through miscalculated self-injury) is offered a second chance by Death: take on the role of a Horseman of the Apocalypse. Anorexic, over-exercising Lisa becomes the avatar of Famine, and outcast cutter Missy assumes the mantle of War. Their new identities give the teens a sense of purpose, and the power to inflict—or choose not to inflict—tragedy on others inspires Missy and Lisa to confront their personal demons.

There’s an implication in the novels that a “bigger picture” perspective can reverse these extremely complex psychological problems. I doubt that global awareness alone would be enough to change an anorexic’s or self-injurer’s self-destructive patterns, but it’s refreshing to see protagonists dealing with these issues in plots that go beyond a problem novel set-up. Partial proceeds from the books are donated to the National Eating Disorder Association and self-injury prevention organization To Write Love on Her Arms, two causes I wholeheartedly support.

So far, the Horsemen protagonists have been Horsewomen, with psychological issues primarily (but certainly not only) afflicting teenage girls, but both secondary characters Death and Pestilence have male incarnations. I’m curious about their back stories—particularly that of the enigmatic Pale Rider, who bears an uncanny resemblance to a long-dead icon of the grunge era (complete with a tendency to break into “Come as You Are”)—and interested to see how the change of protagonist gender may influence the narratives. Loss, starring Pestilence, will be out next year; it looks like I’ll have to wait even longer to get the whole scoop on Death.

In the meantime, Kessler’s “characters strike back” in an interview with the author by Missy and Lisa. And Death himself chats about life, “little-d death,” and rock ‘n’ roll with other protagonists of YA novels at the “call-in radio show”–style blog Post Mortem.

See Jackie Morse Kessler’s response to The Wall Street Journal‘s “Darkness Too Visible” article here.

Katie Bircher About Katie Bircher

Katie Bircher, associate editor at The Horn Book, Inc., is a former bookseller and holds an MA in children's literature from Simmons College. She served as chair of the 2018 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award committee. Follow Katie on Twitter @lyraelle.



  1. Insane genius in a slender paperback. I read it at one sitting and cried my way through the end of chapter 17 and most of chapter 18. If those bits don’t make you cry too, you may not be a parent or child. Easily ranks with Before I Fall and You as one of the best books I’ve read this year.

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