Foster the Teens: Foster Kids in YA Literature
May is National Foster Care Month, and learning this got me wondering how foster kids are represented in YA literature. I know a few kids in foster care and have even considered fostering myself. For teens it can be a hard life — harder than it is even for younger kids. Feeling unwanted at any age is heartbreaking, and for teens it can especially be so, considering all of the changes that teens go through even with a stable home life.
I took a jab at finding some literature that a teenager in foster care might be able to relate to on some level. I haven’t always had much luck on searches like this, and my expectations weren’t exactly high. Imagine my surprise when I did a quick search and found a bunch of YA literature that lists “foster care” as a main subject! Thrilled at this, I requested a bunch of them from the library and got to perusing.
The first thing I found was that books about teens in foster care are, fortunately, not necessarily about teens in foster care. The characters may be in foster care, but everything from fantasy to mysteries to true-life tales have been across my desk the past few weeks. The important thing isn’t that the story be about life in foster care, but just that a teen in foster care can have a life.
The Guardian by Joyce Sweeny is a shorter novel about a thirteen-year-old boy named Hunter who has been shifted from foster home to foster home for most of his life. There are three foster sisters in his current home, which was pretty good until their foster father, Mike, died. Now foster mom Stephanie has changed, and she’s forcing the kids — including five-year-old Drew — to get jobs. When Hunter protests for Drew’s sake, Stephanie beats him and Hunter starts praying to his guardian angel … who happens to be real, though he’s not what Hunter thought he was. The action takes a while to get going in this one, but it’s not all bad, and though it doesn’t have a super happy ending, it’s realistic and hopeful.
Shifting by Bethany Wiggins is more of a fantasy given that the main character, Maggie, is a shape shifter. Having been bounced from one foster home to another (a common thread in a lot of these books), she’s placed with lucky thirteen: Mrs. Carpenter in Silver City, New Mexico. Of course, this is where things really start to heat up for Maggie. She meets the not-quite-what-he-seems-at-first Bridger O’Connell and discovers that the Navajo tales of Skinwalkers aren’t exactly tales. The addition of Native American culture in this one gives it a different spin from many of the books in the paranormal genre.
Another fantastical tale is The Shadow Society by Marie Rutkoski. Darcy doesn’t remember anything of her life before she was abandoned outside of a Chicago fire station when she was five, but she does know that she doesn’t really fit in. Another teen who’s moved from foster home to foster home, it’s not until she’s sixteen that she meets new boy Conn and feels instant attraction — and also like he might be her enemy. When she discovers that she is actually from an alternate universe and that she isn’t even human, Darcy has to face the fact that finding out who you are isn’t always going to make you happy, but it’s what you do with your actions that matters most.
Lynda Mullaly Hunt’s One for the Murphys is slightly more of a juvenile read, but I’m including it here because it was the only best-case scenario representation of life in foster care that I came across. Twelve-year-old Carley Connors is placed in foster care after her mother is badly beaten and hospitalized, and she is suspicious of everyone. The family that takes her in, the Murphys, consists of two parents and three boys, and Carley is sure that she’s being sent straight into a nightmare. At first she keeps her walls up because she knows the only person she can depend on is herself, and she is sure the Murphys won’t want her to stay. After a little while, though, she starts to open up and become part of the family, and she realizes that she might actually be able to fit in with them and be happy. The choice before her is difficult: give her mother another chance or stay with the Murphys?
Finally, in Genius Squad, the sequel to Catherine Jinks‘s Evil Genius, we find Cadel Piggot fresh off of his adventures with Dr. Darkon and Prosper English and stuck in a foster home with well-meaning foster mom Hazel and a few other motley foster kids. He is followed everywhere by a protective police detail, is still interested in computers, and visits his friend Sonja when he can, but life isn’t great. Restless and unchallenged, he takes up with a group called the Genius Squad even though he’s not sure of their true intentions or whether or not they can protect him when the villain he’s supposed to testify against escapes from jail.
Unfortunately, I didn’t find too many titles that depict a happy life in foster care, but the protagonists in all of these have the sense of loneliness and “not fitting in” that many teens in foster care have and can relate to. On a positive note, they also all appear to be strong and capable of taking care of themselves, even though it often costs them emotionally until they find themselves in places where they can learn to trust and open up with others.
— Carla Land, currently reading Poison by Bridget Zinn