So, I received a book–that I’d requested–to review ages ago. And I took a very long time to read it, but still I didn’t review it. I’ve been thinking about this book for months now–generally a good sign, but I’m not sure what to make of it. So I’m going to present my thoughts here and challenge all of you to read it and post your thoughts about it, as well.
Something Like Hope by Shawn Goodman has gotten a lot of buzz, from what I can tell. Cynsations featured it a few months back, which was where I heard about it. Since the book is about girls in the juvenile detention center, I was eager to get my hands on it.
Summary: Seventeen-year-old Shavonne has been in and out of juvenile detention since the eighth grade. Angry and confused, she turns to Mr. Delpopolo, an overweight, sad-eyed man who is struggling to accept the reality of his own shattered life. With compassion and honesty, he helps Shavonne understand the connection between her self-destructive behavior and the shame about her past that burns through her so with so much intensity. For the first time, she tells the truth about her crack-addicted mother, the baby she delivered straight into the foster care system, and the pain she feels about her role in her brother’s accident.
But even as Shavonne comes to understand the past, her present – life in the Center – threatens to explode in even more violence and confusion. Her fellow inmates, who have suffered their own unspeakable tragedies, can’t seem to escape the abusive guards and careless counselors who corrupt the system and make it impossible for even the most well-meaning employees to make a difference. But as her eighteenth birthday draws nearer, Shavonne is touched by a series of unexpected kindnesses that shift her vision of the world. She begins to believe that maybe she, like the goslings recently hatched on the Center’s property, could have a future beyond the barbed-wire walls of the system.
Thoughts: So here’s the deal. I loved this book. I thought that it was, as one review said “unflinchingly honest” about the realities of abuse within the juvenile detention center. And about the screwed up lives these girls lead before they get there–lives riddled with abuse, foster care, unlove, despair, and teen pregnancy. Having lived several years with a cousin in and out of the juvenile detention center, and having watched his journey from a relatively kind child to a hardened criminal to suicide, I think that the things that Goodman describes are real and I can’t express how glad I am that someone finally took on this topic. I think that we need a billion more books on the juvenile detention center and on the things that bring children to these places. If anyone knows of any others, please do tell.
I can also tell that the author loves his subject. The compassion for these girls comes through in technicolor on every page of the book. I think that a girl living through abuse, abandonment, juvenile detention crap, any number of other hard life things, would benefit a great deal from reading a book that shows that someone really does care about her. The depiction of the therapist in the book feels dead on, and he cares so much about the MC, Shavonne, that the young woman reading the book might have to realize that she’s not alone and that there are people out there that care about her. And that might be life-changing.
It’s also clear that Shawn Goodman knows his stuff, psychologically speaking. The psychology that leads a young woman to hate herself and think that she’s not worth caring for, that she’s basically crap, is laid out very clearly in the book. As well as the psychology that leads her to mess up over and over, to refuse help, to dig her own grave, so to speak. So I think that a young woman reading this book could learn a great deal about herself and why she does what she does. This could help her change, if she was ready to.
So there’s definitely a lot to be commended in this book. But I have some pretty big questions, as well, that I would love to have a discussion about. The main character is an African American teen mother who was abandoned by her own mother and whose daughter is in a happy foster care placement. Supposedly. And while I can tell throughout the book that the author has spades and spades of compassion for his subject, it does not feel to me that he was even remotely successful at getting inside of her experience. The main character sounds like a therapist to me, not a struggling black teen mother. Now given every character is different, but this one is such a careful observer and chronicler of her experience, that I would need to have some really compelling evidence (like that she went to genius school or something) that she even could be that self-aware.
Now this works for the book in a way–an uber-self aware young woman is better able to explain her experiences than most young women would be able to, and that explanation might be able to help someone else understand her experiences. But on the other hand, I could see a young woman thinking that this is just another middle-aged white guy who thinks he gets her business but doesn’t know anything and why should she trust him anyway?
On top of that, the ease with which Shavonne comes to trust her therapist feels more like a fantasy of what every person who has ever cared about a child wishes would happen than the reality of gaining a child’s trust. (I refer you back to the incredible poem “Youth Work” by Victoria Sammartino on the Welcome Page.)
So this brings up a bunch of questions for me, and I don’t actually have answers. School Library Journal compares Something Like Hope to Coe Booth’s Tyrell. I recently heard Coe give a talk with An Na about some of the difficulties of writing from outside ones own culture, and I really wonder how she would feel about this book?
Personally, I think that we need as many narratives as we can get out there about kids living through hard times. But I don’t think that Goodman succeeded in accurately portraying the reality of one of these girl’s lives. Are the inaccuracies worth it? I’m not sure. But I also don’t think that the book would be successful for a teen audience if it had out and out been written from the POV of the middle-aged, white therapist.
Because the reality is that sometimes there are stories that children need, but people from within that community aren’t willing or able to tell those stories. I think about Hard Love by Ellen Wittlinger. I consider that book to be one of the most nuanced depictions of coming to terms with one’s sexuality that is out there. But I’m not sure that someone within the gay community would have written it because we (Gays) don’t necessarily want to admit that there might be any hetero pit-stops or confusions on the path to gaydom. But I think that it’s a narrative that has benefited questioning teens for years (including me). Ellen Wittlinger is not gay. In fact, she wrote a very well-reasoned criticism for the Horn Book of Lambda Literary for changing their policy to no longer give allies their literary prize (which Wittlinger has won once and been nominated for three times.) But nonetheless, I think her book has helped kids.
So back to Something Like Hope: I think it’s a story that really needs to be told, and I haven’t seen it told before. I don’t see a lot of African American former teen mothers who have been in and out of Juvie stepping forward to write this book. Most of them will probably never get a college degree. Many of them will fall off to depression and the adult justice system. And there are only so many Coe Booths and Walter Dean Myerses to go around. And I’m not sure even they could claim to understand what’s going on inside the mind of a girl who has been abused and is living inside a hopeless and abusive system. So what are we to do? Because giving these girls books that show them that there is hope, that someone cares about them, and that they aren’t bad could save their lives. And it could help inspire them to be able to go out and write their stories someday.
I asked Coe about something like this after her talk and she said that you could write anything if you do it well. But how are we to do it well? Shawn Goodman obviously has a lot of experience working with the kinds of girls he was writing about, but I don’t think he succeeded in getting inside the mind and the heart and the speech-patterns of his protagonist.
On the other hand, Katherine Paterson’s depiction of Gilly in The Great Gilly Hopkins felt absolutely spot on about a foster kid. And she wrote that book from the perspective of having had an unsuccessful experience raising a foster girl–not necessarily having been one herself. So obviously it can be done successfully. But how are we to do it? And assuming we can’t all be as brilliant as Paterson, how are we to make sure that children have the narratives they need if someone who has lived through that experience is not stepping forward to write it?
Please, all, contribute your thoughts. I think this topic is a really important one.