Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!
Though I don’t often do so, after reading this book, I checked to see what kind of critical acclaim it had received. I was pleasantly surprised to see a star from SLJ, a star from Booklist, as well as a commendation from Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books.
Content Commentary: This is may be painful or distressing to people who have experienced physical and psychological abuse. It’s indirect enough that most kids will likely simply express unhappy surprise at some of the interactions, but more sensitive children (and knowing adults) may find themselves utterly brokenhearted. Provide tissues.
Synopsis: Auntie Jove never did come to take them to live with her. Soledad expected her at seven, after her mother died, but now that she’s twelve, she knows Auntie Jove was just a story – her mother didn’t have a sister, and now she’s dead. To comfort her little sister now, Sol shares the arresting, vibrant, beautiful adventure stories of the dashing Auntie Jove with her little sister, Dominga, to keep Ming’s spirits up. Since their father left them, three years ago, things have been going from bad to worse with their stepmother, Tita Vea. Ming doesn’t talk to Vea, and sometimes, she hardly talks to Sol. Her silence just pushes Vea to get worse and worse, to scream louder and louder, to pinch and throw ice water, and take their toys… They’re not little girls in a fairytale story. There’s no one going to step in and save them. And really, who should save them? Tita Vea always says Sol is a bad, bad girl.
Soledad is so bad, she and her best friend, Manny, sometimes pick on the kids from other schools for fun. She’s so bad, she steals from the corner store – and now Ming’s done it, too, which is NOT what Soledad intended. Sol is so bad, she’s responsible for her other little sister, Amelia’s death, when Amelia was only ten. And recently Sol threw a pinecone at a girl’s head, and the girl ….had to get stitches. Oops.
Sol believes herself to be bad, but not quite that bad. After some effort, she tracks down the girl, with her pale skin and paler complexion, and Soledad apologizes. In doing so, she discovers that it’s not so hard to make a enemy a friend… All it takes is listening. The girls share stories, and Soledad begins to feel a little bit heard, realizing that harsh realities feel just as harsh to others, even when they’ve got different problems. Now that the weird skateboarding girl from the snobby school talks to her, and the boy who hangs around with her, Sol’s almost got three new friends. Things get a tiny bit brighter, for Sol, at least. But after Ming’s theft, Tita Vea has been told, and there was Real Trouble. Since then, Ming’s been… acting odd. She’s insisting that Auntie Jove is coming for her — and her silences grow louder. She’s packing her bags. She’s retreating inside of her own head, and Soledad can’t get her out. Now all of her trips to Blackbeard’s junkyard to find her a special something just might be in vain. She’s got to find someone to help her — but is there anyone who sees them?
Observations: It’s rare to see a book with Filipino main characters, and these girls were born in the Philippines, and immigrated to the U.S. Most of us who live in California grew up with immigrants surrounding us at work, at school, and in our neighborhoods. More of us who lived on the margins will recognize that at times, the real America to which these families came did not mesh well with dreams the families brought with them, nor with the cultures and mores of the countries these families had left behind. This caused some tension in those families, and for a variety of reasons, in a variety of ways, many of us observed this tension. While I dealt with the fallout from this tension, teaching group home students, I have never seen a book deal with this specifically. It was heartbreaking and strengthening in myriad ways, because how often do kids in trouble – immigrants or no, being bullied by children, or by the adults who are meant to care for them – how often do they wish desperately that someone saw them? The children in this story were visible, by virtue of finding people to listen amongst their peers, by virtue of learning to listen to others, and through the salvation of a silent but kind neighbor. This made me wonder how I could do better at seeing, and will spark some important conversations with the big-hearted and intelligent children who read this.
There are magical elements of the story, as Amelia appears and reappears as Soledad’s conscience, in a manner of speaking, but she is ambiguously not much of a ghost, but more of Soledad’s inner mind, or what she believes a protective adults would think or say. Amelia tries to help Soledad be an amazing sister to their baby sister, Ming, and her proactiveness allows Ming as much protection as their rough world affords. This tender relationship provides a tendril of hope and allows mature readers to set aside their sadness at the circumstances in which the girls find themselves, and embrace the truths, that story is a lifeline, that sisters can be fierce protectors, and that hope is sometimes found by taking less traditional and unexpected paths.
Conclusion: This novel is not tied neatly in a bow; life, especially lives in the margin, are a series of victories and defeats. The story certainly ends with the traditional “kernel of hope” however, and most readers can clearly see better days ahead. Some readers will find it “too depressing” and be upset that an adult writer articulated so clearly the struggles of children, but I encourage you not to allow your feelings to be centered, and shift your focus to potential young readers. It’s important that more privileged children learn that not everyone has their privileges, and it’s important for less privileged children to know that their lives and struggles have meaning and validity and that they are seen. The voices in this book are real and true, and Soledad is allowed to be “bad,” angry, confused, and flawed. The adults in this book are not irredeemably bad, either; Vea is a selfish, monstrously abusive woman, but she is also an immature person who paid a staggeringly high price for what she wanted, feels trapped, and doesn’t know how to better herself. There are complexities available to the reader who doesn’t assume this entire book can be understood in a single glance.
I received my copy of this book courtesy of the public library, but for me, this is a Buy book not a Borrow. You can find THE LAND OF FORGOTTEN GIRLS by Erin Entrada Kelly an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!