Last week at ALA’s Midwinter Meeting, the ALA Youth Media Awards were announced. This list includes a wide range of types of media, ranging from the Andrew Carnegie Medal for “outstanding video productions for children” to the Alex Awards for “books written for adults that have special appeal to young adults, ages 12 through 18.” You can find the full list of YA Awards in The Hub’s earlier post, but today I want to take a look at one specific award, the Schneider Family Book Award. This award “honor[s] an author or illustrator for a book that embodies an artistic expression of the disability experience for child and adolescent audiences.” Up to three awards are given each year: one for a children’s book, one for a middle grade book, and one for a young adult book. This year, Girls Like Us by Gail Giles won the teen book award.
Girls Like Us is told from two perspectives, interweaving the stories of two teens on the verge of graduating from their high school’s special education program. The book opens from Biddy’s perspective. Biddy can’t read or write and she knows she has “moderate retardation” because she didn’t get enough oxygen at birth. Though she is generally sweet natured, her past has left her guarded and afraid around many strangers. She has always lived with her grandmother, but now that she is graduating from high school, her grandmother, who has only ever tolerated her while calling her cruel names, won’t let her stay any more. Chapter two is told from the point of view of Quincy, who is in special education due to a brain injury she sustained when her mother’s boyfriend hit her over the head with a brick. In addition to her brain injury, her face is also “dented” from this attack. This combined with her subsequent years spent bouncing between foster families and the racism she has faced due to her multi-racial heritage, has left Quincy angry and ready to be mean first before people can be mean to her. She is less than pleased when she learns that she and Biddy will be living together in an apartment owned by the former mayor’s wife, Elizabeth, and helping to care for the woman.
Giles manages to fully realize the different perspectives and voices of these two characters without seeming as though she is condescending to them. She never minimizes the problems that they encounter in life, but she clearly makes the point that the problems they face due to their disabilities are dwarfed by the problems that come from the way other people have treated them throughout their whole life. Biddy and Quincy both have skills, hopes, and desires, but they are often underestimated due to their status as “Speddies” or special education students. When the book opens, one of the few things that both Biddy and Quincy agree on is that no one can care about girls like them. Though for different reasons, they both expect to be treated as worthless and have internalized this feeling in many ways. Both grow over the course of the book, but Giles avoids a storybook tale where their lives magically improve once they go to live with Elizabeth. Biddy continues to confront the fallout of her traumatic past and Quincy faces a similar trauma of her own. This is one of the ways that the girls grow closer, but as Giles slowly reveals the details of both of these traumas, she never suggests that they have been forces for personal growth. Rather she shows the strength that Biddy and Quincy have built over the course of their lives and continue to cultivate as they become more independent and simultaneously become friends and even family. Girls Like Us is a book that will stay with you long after you have finished it and might just change the way you see the world.
– Carli Spina, currently reading We Should Hang Out Sometime by Josh Sundquist