Lauren McLaughlin is no stranger to hard-hitting, unflinching young adult novels: her debut, Cycler (and its sequel, Re-Cycler) was about a teenaged girl who turned into a boy for four days every month; Scored was a class-conscious surveillance dystopia; now, in The Free, McLaughlin sheds any fantastic or futuristic elements and mainlines a pure, angry, relentless and stripped-down story about a kid whose desperate circumstances become almost unbearable when he takes a fall for a car-theft and goes to juvenile prison.

Isaac West is a mixed-race kid who never knew his dad; he and his sister have raised their alcoholic, abusive mother as much as she's raised them. But Isaac has a plan: his little sister Janelle is smart, better than he'll ever be, and he's going to get her out of their mutual hellhole and into a private school — and to make that happen, he's graduated from petty theft into grand theft auto, under the supervision of his high-school auto-shop teacher, a cut-rate Fagin who trains and oversees a gang of junior car thieves.

It's this teacher who insists that Isaac should plead guilty to beating a man comatose in a car-heist that went wrong, though the kid who actually did the beat-down was the teacher's cousin, a hulking giant of a kid who has already got a conviction under his belt and faces being tried as an adult if he goes down.

For Isaac, it's an easy choice: spend 30 days in juvie, complete his rehab program, and in return, he'll get enough to send Janelle off to private school. All he has to do is survive, and he's been doing that all his life.

From here, McLaughlin has all the elements for a tight, claustrophobic novel that veers between the terror and camaraderie of incarceration; the brutally honest drama therapy group that Isaac must attend if he's to be released; the mounting danger to his sister and all of the repressed feelings and guilt that weigh Isaac down.

While there's some revenge and redemption here, mostly what there is is unblinking reality, a willingness to confront the impossible without denying it. The kids in Isaac's world are in trouble, and that trouble isn't going to get better for most of them, and maybe not for Isaac. Some of those kids are pretty terrible, but even at their worst, they're still kids, and still rounded people with their own virtues and stories.

I don't know when I've read a more empathic novel, and it's been a long time since I read one that was more sorrowful and joyful at the same time.

This is a book for every kid (and grownups, too — YA isn't "literature grownups can't enjoy," after all) — but especially for kids who are struggling in isolation. It's a hymn to the power of people to help one another, even in the worst of circumstances.

The Free [Lauren McLaughlin/Soho Teen]