Thursday, October 28, 2021

Teen/YA Review: Young Man with Camera

When I was pulling stacks of books off my shelves for potential reads for the R.I.P. Readers Imbibing Peril Challenge, I also grabbed a few from my shelf of middle-grade and teen/YA books waiting to be read, many of them having been on that shelf for much too long! Whenever I do this, I usually find a gem I didn't know was hiding there, and that was the case with Young Man with Camera by Emil Sher (and photographs by David Wyman), a novel released in 2015. This wholly unique book blew me away. It is a powerful story of bullying, hope, friendship, and photography.

The narrator of this novel is never named. He refers to himself as T--- and says only a few people actually call him by his name. His explanation provides a glimpse into both his life and the unique way this story is told:

"Only a couple of kids in school call me T---. Most don't bother calling me anything. The ones that do call me things you would never say at a dinner table unless you wanted to be grounded for six years. I don't like to write out my name because I know someone will come along and twist a normal name into something not-normal."

Just that brief passage tells you that he gets bullied ... a lot. Much of the bullying--and his innate shyness and solitude--come from an accident when he was a little boy that left disfiguring burn scars on his neck and face. His primary tormentor is Ryan, a cruel boy who takes pleasure in displaying power over weaker people. Unfortunately, Ryan comes with a whole posse of other boys who follow his lead and do what he says. There are two things that bring joy into T---'s dark life: his best (and only) friend, Sean, and his camera. He sees the world through its lens and loves the way that a photograph can tell a story. A kind librarian at school notices his passion and introduces him to some famous photographs that made a difference in the world and to a book of photographs by Diane Arbus, which T--- pores over with fascination. It is his camera that helps introduce T--- to Lucy, a homeless woman that most people look right past (or through), with whom T--- gets to know and develops a friendship. When Ryan and his crew do something truly horrific and criminal that T--- captures with his camera, he must weigh his conscience with the danger to himself and those he loves.

Wow. This is a short book, sprinkled throughout with real photos, but it packs a lot of power and thoughtfulness into its pages and images. The photographs aren't the only thing that makes this a unique novel. The first-person narration is also original, as T--- has a singular voice and a great way of describing things:

"Lucy started to laugh. This wasn't bow-and-arrow laughter where I'm the target. This wasn't nail-and-hammer laughter where I'm the plank. This wasn't the sour laughter I'd heard before. This laughter was thick gravy you pour over platefuls of grief to disguise the taste."

Just wow, right? This boy has suffered so greatly and has so much insight and thoughtfulness crammed in among his sparse words.

And then there are the photographs. Some of the famous photos are described, but many of T---'s photos are included among the text. Just like he says, they add extra layers to the story and also allow the reader to see what he is seeing. The story itself is quite dark. This is some next-level bullying, and then Ryan's actions actually become criminal. Some of that is hard to read, especially when you've gotten to know T--- and care about him, though there is also a lot of compassion and tenderness in the novel. This is no fairy tale, all wrapped up in a bow at the end with "they lived happily ever after." It's complicated and challenging, just like in real life, but there are glimpses of hope and signs that T--- will ultimately be OK. This is a book that will stick with me for a long time, and after I finished it, I wanted to immediately turn back to page 1 and re-read it.

218 pages, Arthur A. Levine Books

NOTE: I wondered whether to call this a middle-grade or teen/YA novel. The narrator is thirteen years old and in middle school, which would normally mean it's for middle-graders, but it does include quite a bit of horrific violence. So, it's probably fine for some older middle-grade readers but maybe too intense for others. 

In this short video by author Emil Sher, he explains what's behind Young Man with Camera and reads some excerpts:

Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher in return for an honest review. My review is my own opinion and is not influenced by my relationship with the publisher or author.


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Much as I love audiobooks, this is one book that wouldn't work as an audio, since the photos are an integral part of the story.


You can buy the book through, where your purchase will support the indie bookstore of your choice (or all indie bookstores)--the convenience of shopping online while still buying local!

(Note this book is currently backordered on Bookshop, though they have used copies available.)


The hardcover and Kindle editions are also available through Amazon.


  1. I haven't heard of this one, but it sounds so powerful and good! Thank you for brining it to my attention.

    1. Yes, this was really a hidden gem - the author hasn't written much, and this was an older release, but I'm glad I found it! (and so was the author when I tweeted my review - lol)