Westworld meets The Handmaid’s Tale in this start to a thrilling, subversive near future series from New York Times bestselling author Suzanne Young about a girls-only private high school that is far more than it appears to be.
Some of the prettiest flowers have the sharpest thorns.
The Girls of Innovations Academy are beautiful and well-behaved—it says so on their report cards. Under the watchful gaze of their Guardian, they receive a well-rounded education that promises to make them better. Obedient girls, free from arrogance or defiance. Free from troublesome opinions or individual interests.
But the girls’ carefully controlled existence may not be quite as it appears. As Mena and her friends uncover the dark secrets of what’s actually happening there—and who they really are—the girls of Innovations Academy will learn to fight back.
Bringing the trademark plot twists and high-octane drama that made The Program a bestselling and award-winning series, Suzanne Young launches a new series that confronts some of today’s most pressing ethical questions.
Girls with Sharp Sticks 1 It’s been raining for the past three months. Or maybe it’s only been three days. Time is hard to measure here—every day so much like the one before, they all start to blend together.
Rain taps on my school-provided slicker, the inside of the clear plastic material growing foggy in the humid air, and I look around the Federal Flower Garden. Precipitation has soaked the soil, causing it to run onto the pathways as the rose petals sag with moisture.
The other girls are gathered around Professor Penchant, listening attentively as he points out the varied plant species, explaining which ones we’ll be growing back at the school this semester in our gardening class. We grow all manner of things at the Innovations Academy.
A thought suddenly occurs to me, and I take a few steps into the garden, my black shoes sinking into the soil. There are red roses as far as I can see, beautiful and lonely. Lonely because it’s only them—all together, but apart from the other flowers. Isolated.
The sound of rain echoes near my ears, but I close my eyes and listen, trying to hear the roses breathe. Thinking I can hear them live.
But I can’t hear anything beyond the rain, so I open my eyes again, disappointed.
It’s been a dreadful start to spring due to the constant rain. Professor Penchant explained that our flowers—and by extension, us—will flourish because of it. Well, I hope the flourishing is done in time for graduation in the fall. Our time at the academy will be up, and then the school will get a new batch of girls to take our place.
I glance at the group standing with Professor Penchant and find Valentine Wright staring blankly ahead, her gaze cast out among the flowers. It’s unusual for her to not be paying attention; she’s the most proper of all of us. I’ve invited Valentine, on multiple occasions, to hang out with me and the other girls after hours, but she told me it was unseemly for us to gossip. For us to laugh so loudly. Be so opinionated. Eventually, I stopped asking her to join.
Sydney notices me standing apart. She rolls her eyes back and sticks her tongue out to the side like she’s dead, making me laugh. Professor Penchant spins to find me.
“Philomena,” he calls, impatiently waving his hand. “Come here. We’re at the apex of our lesson.”
I immediately obey, hopping across the rose garden to join the other girls. When I reach the group, Professor Penchant presses his thumb between my eyebrows, wiggling it around to work out the crease in my skin.
“And no more daydreaming,” he says with disapproval. “It’s bad for your complexion.” He drops his hand before turning back to the group. I imagine he’s left a reddened thumbprint between my eyebrows.
When the professor starts to talk again, I look sideways at Sydney. She grins, her dimples deep set and her brown eyes framed with exaggerated black lashes. Sydney has smooth, dark skin and straightened hair that falls just below her shoulders under the plastic rain slicker.
On the other side of her, Lennon Rose leans forward to check on me, her blue eyes wide and innocent. “I think your complexion is lovely,” she whispers.
I thank her for being so sweet.
Professor Penchant tells the group about a new strain of flower that Innovations Academy will be developing this semester. We love working in the greenhouse, love getting outside whenever we can. Even if the sunshine is rare.
“But only those who are well-behaved will get a chance to work on these plants,” the professor warns. “There are no rewards for girls who are too spirited.” He looks directly at me, and I lower my eyes, not wanting to vex him any more today. “Professor Driscoll will concur.”
As the professor continues, turning away to point out other plants, I glance around the flower garden once again. It’s then that I notice Guardian Bose standing near the entrance where we came in. He’s talking to the curator of the garden, a young woman holding an oversized red umbrella. While one hand holds the umbrella, she puts the other on her hip, talking impatiently to the Guardian. I wonder what they’re discussing.
Guardian Bose is an intimidating presence in any setting, but even more so outside the walls of the academy, where he’s become commonplace. He’s here to ensure our safety and compliance, although we never misbehave—not in any significant way.
Innovations Academy, our all-girl private school, is very protective of us. We’re confined to campus most days of our accelerated yearlong program, and we don’t go home on breaks. They say the complete immersion helps us develop faster, more thoroughly.
Recently, the academy raised its curriculum rigor, increasing the number of courses and amount of training. Our class of twelve was selected based on the new heightened standards. We’re top of the line, they like to say. The most well-rounded girls to ever graduate. We do our best to make them proud.
Guardian Bose says something to the woman with the red umbrella. She laughs, shaking her head no. The Guardian’s posture tightens, and then he turns to find me watching him. He angles his body to block my view of the woman. He tips his head, saying something near her ear, and the woman shrinks back. Within moments, she hurries toward the indoor facility and disappears.
I turn away before Guardian Bose catches me watching again.
Thunder booms overhead and Lennon Rose screams before slapping her hand over her mouth. The professor looks pointedly in her direction, but then he glances up at the sky as the rain begins to fall harder.
“All right, girls,” he says, adjusting the hood on his rain slicker. “We’re going to wrap this up for now. Back to the bus.”
A couple of the girls begin to protest, but Professor Penchant claps his hands loudly to drown out their voices. He reminds them that we’ll return next month—so long as we behave. The girls comply, apologizing, and start toward the bus. But as the others head that way, I notice that Valentine doesn’t move; she doesn’t even turn in that direction.
I swallow hard, unsettled. Rain pours over Valentine’s slicker, running down the clear plastic in rivers. A drop runs down her cheek. I watch her, trying to figure out what’s wrong.
Sensing me, she lifts her head. She is . . . expressionless. Alarming in her stillness.
“Valentine,” I call over the rain. “Are you okay?”
She pauses so long that I’m not sure she heard me. Then she turns back to the flowers. “Can you hear them too?” she asks, her voice soft and faraway.
“Hear what?” I ask.
The corner of her mouth twitches with a smile. “The roses,” she says affectionately. “They’re alive, you know. All of them. And if you listen closely enough, you can hear their shared roots. Their common purpose. They’re beautiful, but it’s not all they are.”
There’s tingling over my skin because a few moments ago, I did try to listen to the roses. What are the chances that Valentine and I would have the same odd thought?
“I didn’t hear anything,” I admit. “Just quiet contentment.”
Valentine’s behavior is unusual, but I want to know what she’s going to say next. I take a step closer.
Her smile fades. “They’re not content,” she replies in a low voice. “They’re waiting.”
A drop of rain finds its way under the collar of my shirt and runs down my spine, making me shiver.
“Waiting for what?” I ask.
Valentine turns to me and whispers, “To wake up.”
Her eyes narrow, fierce and unwavering. Her hands curl into fists at her side.
I shiver again, but this time it’s not from the rain. The academy tells us not to ask philosophical questions because we’re not equipped for the answers. They teach us what we need, rather than indulging our passing curiosities. They say it helps maintain our balance, like soil ripe for growth.
Valentine’s words are dangerous in that way—the beginning of a larger conversation I want to have. But at the same time, one I don’t quite understand. One that scares me. Why would the flowers say such a thing? Why would flowers say anything at all?
Just as I’m about to ask her what the flowers are waking up from, there is a firm grip on my elbow. Startled, I spin around to find Guardian Bose towering over me.
“I’ve got it from here, Philomena,” he says in his deep voice. “Catch up with the others.”
I shoot a cautious glace at Valentine, but her expression has gone back to pleasant. As the Guardian approaches her, Valentine nods obediently before he even says a word. Her abrupt change in character has left me confused.
I start toward the bus, my brows pulled together as I think. Sydney holds out her hand when she sees me and I take it gratefully, our fingers wet and cold.
“What was that about?” she asks as we walk.
“I’m not exactly sure,” I say. “Valentine is . . . off,” I add for lack of a better word. I don’t know how to explain what just happened. Especially when it’s left me so uneasy.
Sydney and I look back in Valentine’s direction, but she and the Guardian are already heading our way. Valentine is quiet. Perfect posture. Perfect temperament.
“She looks fine to me,” Sydney says with a shrug. “Her usual boring self.”
I study Valentine a moment longer, but the girl who spoke to me is gone, replaced with a flawless imitation. Or, I guess, the original version.
And I’m left with the burden of the words, an infectious thought.
Suzanne Young is the New York Times bestselling author of The Program series. Originally from Utica, New York, Suzanne moved to Arizona to pursue her dream of not freezing to death. She is a novelist and an English teacher, but not always in that order. Suzanne is also the author of Girls with Sharp Sticks, All in Pieces, Hotel for the Lost, and several others novels for teens. Visit her online at AuthorSuzanneYoung.com or follow her on Instagram at @AuthorSuzanneYoung.
"This book has enough plot twists to give a reader whiplash."
– Cosmopolitan, "Books You Won't Be Able To Put Down in 2019"
"Readers will be revved up for the inevitable uprising . . . a suspenseful and timely read. Readers will look forward to the sequel."
– Kirkus Reviews
Gr 9 Up–“The only worthy girls are well-behaved girls.” So teaches the staff at Innovations Academy, proud of producing the best girls, who are “beautiful, quiet, and pure.” Mena trusts the men running the academy to know what’s best. Yet when one of her friends disappears, Mena begins to question whether these men are acting out of protection or some darker purpose. Mena’s journey out of complacent ignorance is harrowing and exhilarating. Young imbues her narrator with a keen intelligence that has been stunted with drugs and lies, and as Mena rids herself of those impediments, she unravels mysteries and learns how to fight back. This novel, the first in a planned series, is like The Stepford Wives refashioned for teens coming of age in our volatile modern era. The curriculum of the Innovations Academy is basically the ideology of rape culture made explicit: girls are expected to please and acquiesce to men, men cannot be expected to control themselves, and girls who have not remained pure are considered “devalued.” Mena’s initial parroting of these ideas, slowly giving way to questioning and then outrage, creates a suspenseful and claustrophobic atmosphere that eventually threatens to boil over with vindictive violence. The real fodder for ethical debate arises as Mena and her friends decide how to react to the truths they’ve uncovered. Readers will be inspired by Mena’s awakening, and particularly by the unbreakable and loving sisterhood she shares with her classmates. VERDICT Highly recommended.–Elizabeth Lovsin, Deerfield Public Library, IL
– School Library Journal, February 2019
"The story presents a clear, overt examination of gender and power, and it’s a carefully constructed one, highlighting the complexities of a patriarchal system that is so ingrained and so absolute that even the most well-intentioned men and women unwittingly uphold it. . . . A timely, perceptive read, this will leave readers, especially those grappling with the implications of the #metoo era, anxious for the sequel."
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