Something to Ponder: Review of Something Like Hope by Shawn Goodman

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.

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About pamwatts

Writer, Reader, and Children's advocate
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5 Responses to Something to Ponder: Review of Something Like Hope by Shawn Goodman

  1. It was great seeing you in Vermont, and I’m glad you were able to include Coe and Na’s lecture in this post. I haven’t read Something Like Hope yet, but will now that you’ve called on us to read and react to it. However, in shelving my last semester’s reading to make room for this semester, I found a book written by an African-American woman that portrays a black girl in the foster care system who has come to a foster home after a stint in a juvenile facility. The book is Hot Girl by Dream Jordan (a pseudonym but I’ve met her and she is African-American), published by St. Martin’s Press in 2008 as a crossover title.

    The fate of Hot Girl, which a lot of people don’t know and I wouldn’t have found out about unless I’d met the author at a party, demonstrates one of the other principal points of Coe and Na’s lecture: that books written by white people about people of color tend to be published better than books written by authors of color. It’s shameful that publishers would make more of an effort to get a book by an outsider than an insider out there, or (and this is in fact the principal scenario) that major publishers select the white author’s project and the author of color ends up with a smaller press or imprint that doesn’t have the marketing muscle to get respect for the book or doesn’t make the right choices regarding age level, cover design, format, etc. In the case of Hot Girl, the fact that the book was originally viewed as an adult title from an adult imprint (it was one of St. Martin’s first crossover titles) represented a missed opportunity to create buzz in the kidlit world.

    Hot Girl would be a good book to compare to Something Like Hope, and I can send it to you if you’d like. Perhaps we can trade.

  2. pamwatts says:

    That would be great, Lyn. I would love to read it.

  3. Kathy Quimby says:

    You mentioned Katherine Paterson’s ability to successfully get inside Gilly Hopkins’ head, which you feel Shawn Goodman doesn’t manage to pull off. I suspect there are at least a couple of reasons for this, which might explain the difference. 1) Katherine Paterson started writing Gilly Hopkins because she was trying to figure out why she had failed with a foster child. She was personally, rather than professionally grappling with the question of what it must have felt like to have been that child, and she had also spent 24/7 time with that child, which is different from seeing someone in a professional setting even on a daily basis. 2) Social workers and counselors have to be compassionate, while simultaneously maintaining a certain clinical objectivity. This doesn’t encourage them to actively imagine what it must be like to be that person in specifics, even though they may know all the reasons their client is the way they are. –This is the working from the general toward the specifics, rather than the other way around, if you see what I mean. Writers do their best work when we build from specifics. 3) Katherine Paterson’s personal experience, living in China as a child of missionaries, having to flee war, and seeking refuge with family where she didn’t always feel completely welcome gives her particular experiential references to know from the inside what it feels like to be uncertain about where you’ll sleep on a given night, for example. Katherine Paterson is a brilliant writer, but part of her brilliance comes, I think, from her ability to so fully grasp what if feels like to be completely Other.

    It was so good to see you again on Monday, when I was visiting VCFA.

  4. pamwatts says:

    It was good to see you, too, Kathy! Thanks for stopping in here.

    And those are great points. I once asked Katherine Paterson how she manages to so completely capture the emotional experience of her characters and she said that she has a really good emotional memory. Which makes a lot of sense to me.

    And you also just pinpointed something that’s been niggling me about the argument that we shouldn’t write a character whose culture we are not part of. I find myself drawn to write lots of different characters who I am not technically the same culture/race as. And I’m not doing it to increase multi-culturalism or broaden perspectives or some lofty goal like that. When I write from the POV of an angry Latina foster girl, for instance, I’m exploring something about that experience that is really a question for me: I’m exploring my OWN experience of being an outsider with less than perfect parents. And even though Ellen Wittlinger is self-identified as straight, I wonder sometimes if she ever really struggled with her own sexual-dentity. Or some other aspect of identity. It just seems like a personal question for her even though she’s not technically queer. And I don’t know if a character would ever ring completely true unless you were writing to explore some aspect of yourself or your own experience, or some question that feels deeply personal.

  5. pamwatts says:

    Uma Krishnaswami has some great recent thoughts about writing from an insiders and an outsiders perspective on her blog.

    This interview with Sheela Chari– http://umakrishnaswami.blogspot.com/2011/07/interview-wednesday-sheela-chari-on.html –talks about writing from the perspective of being two cultures.

    And this post– http://umakrishnaswami.blogspot.com/2011/07/culture-craft-and-fictional-worlds.html –is more generally about cultural authenticity. Uma is one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, and her thoughts on the subject are quite thought-provoking.

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