Pandemic, by Yvonne Ventresca (Sky Pony Press, May 2014) is a solid "first disastrous viral outbreak" for the young teen, and in as much as I enjoy a good (fictional) virus, I picked it up with enthusiasm.
Only a few people know why Lil became a withdrawn pessimist, broke up with her boy friend, took up smoking, and lost control of her grades in school. The reader, however, quickly learns that she was sexually assaulted by a teacher (though the details aren't revealed till further along in the book), and though she was able to get away from him before he could actually rape her, her confidence in humanity, and in herself, is shattered.
One of her coping strategies is to prepare for emergencies, stockpiling food and supplies...just in case. But nothing can prepare Lil for what's about to happen. Alone in the house while her parents are both at separate conferences, Lil hears the first news stories about a new strain of flu....and faster and faster the reports of illness and death start coming in. Lil's New Jersey town is near the epicenter of the new pandemic, and its effects on normal life are devastating. The death toll rises, looters are on the prowl, and Lil must cope with disaster on an epic scale, while still struggling with her personal demons.
Fortunately, though she misses her parents terribly, she is not alone--a smoking buddy named Jay becomes her ally (and more) as the two of them try to keep going, and to keep the little kids who depend on them alive.
This one, I think, is a good First Pandemic for the younger teen reader. It's straightforward in writing style and plot, and though various boxes of disaster are neatly checked off, it's not overwhelmingly horrible and sad. The cumulative effect of the many bad things that happen is balanced by a sense of certainty that Lil and Jay are going to make it. So this is one I'd give to a 12 or 13 year old, just moving into medical disaster territory, and then move on to books that carry a more powerful emotional punch, like The Way We Fall, by Megan Crewe, and then books that hit even harder, like Orleans, by Sherri L. Smith.
The lack of urgency I felt while reading Pandemic comes in part, I think, from the fact that I just didn't find Lil desperately interesting, and was never desperately worried about her. The sexual assault sub-plot that comprises the cornerstone of Lil's character as presented to the reader felt somewhat gratuitous and distracting--based on Lily's response to it, I was expecting what happened her to have been worse than it was. Though I don't want to dismiss how horribly traumatic such an experience as hers would be, I never was quite convinced by Lil's months-long withdrawal, especially as she shows herself capable of rising above disaster and functioning competently during the horror of the pandemic.
Still, the pandemic and its ripple effects of disaster make for gripping reading, and readers can cheer for Lil and Jay's nascent romance with conviction.
(disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher)