Author: Ally Carter
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Publication: March 27, 2018
Hardcover: 304 pages

This doesn’t come out until the end of March, but apparently Scholastic Book Fairs get hooked up with the good stuff early. So even though I am, shall we say, a few years out of elementary school, my Mother Unit is a well-informed woman who was thankfully willing to make a second trip to my old stomping grounds when I texted her to pleeeeeeease go back and pick some things up for me.* Even though she said I was like those people who ask librarians for “that blue book” when I told her this book had a snow cover with red letters. LOOK HOW RIGHT I WAS, MOM.

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Ally Carter, author of the popular Gallagher Girls, Heist Society, and Embassy Row books, is back with a vengeance in the standalone middle-grade novel Not If I Save You First. Logan and Maddie are best friends, he the President’s son and she the daughter of a Secret Service agent. At ten years old, they’re exploring secret passages and raiding stashes of White House chocolate, but everything falls apart in one terrible night. Before Maddie has any idea what’s happening, her father has whisked her off to rural Alaska for a life with no running water, no internet, and no Logan.

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But yes bears.

She writes him letters. She writes him some more letters. No response. Forging a new life for herself, Maddie fills her days with bedazzling weapons and becoming a skilled survivalist, only to be blindsided when Logan unexpectedly shows up on her doorstep six years later. Murder is acceptable when your former best friend ignored you for six years, right?

Before she has time to wrap her mind around his arrival and taller, broader, suddenly un-boyish stature, an assailant sends her over the edge of a cliff and hauls Logan off into the Alaskan wilderness. Maddie is injured, but she’s the only person who knows what direction they went. She could go back for help, or she can pursue Logan and his kidnapper while their tracks are still fresh.

And then it starts to rain.

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Not If I Save You First will delight fans of author Ally Carter’s work, particularly her Gallagher Girl series. (I’m convinced Maddie would’ve been recruited for the Gallagher Academy if she hadn’t moved off-grid.) Maddie is a stellar heroine, an excellent example of the ongoing recognition that girls can be fierce and fabulous, proving that femininity and strength are not mutually exclusive. After all, nail polish remover is an excellent fire-starter, and you can catch fish with pantyhose.

“To Maddie, armor meant nail polish. And lip gloss. Really, lip gloss was essential to a girl’s self-defense, she was certain. And clean hair. Oh, have mercy, did she ever need clean hair.”

I heard Carter speak on the development of this idea at the Oklahoma Teen Book Con last fall, and she said it hits on a question that arises in many books with young protagonists – why don’t the teens ever just call the police, rather than diving in to save the day themselves? Well, what if they’re in a place where that isn’t an option? The research Carter put into depicting rural Alaska shines through in her portrayal of Maddie’s daily life as well as her trek to save Logan.

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The Husband Unit actually has this book…

Not If I See You First sits wonderfully in the middle-grade/13-14 year-old realm that can be difficult to make age-appropriate recommendations for. It has plenty of action and a sweet dash of romance, but nothing too intense for a younger reader. Carter stays focused on that first crush, the initial uncertain feelings and awkward affection, rather than full on sexuality like many upper teen books.

This a great story about finding strength in yourself, but it also speaks strongly to the value of true friendship, and the pain of losing a close friend. While Maddie and Logan can’t erase six years of silence and go back to the way things were, with a little work they just might be able to pick up a new trail – one for their hearts, towards a reignited friendship, and one for their feet, out of the Alaskan wilderness.

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*Next year, Mom, text me while you’re still there to avoid any extra driving because you underestimated my inhibitions about book-buying.

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