Book Review: Good Kings, Bad Kings

Posted: May 6, 2013 in Book Reviews

Nussbaum, Susan. Algonquin Books, 2013. 304p. $23.95.  978-161620-263-7.

518aati8S3L._SY300_Susan Nussbaum’s book is getting a lot of press. It  just won  the 2012 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. Barbara Kingsolver founded the Bellwether Prize in 2000 to “promote fiction that addresses issues of social justice and the impact of culture and politics on human relationships.”

The first chapter of the book got my pulse racing – as any good book should – I got excited about all the people I would share the book with and all the places it could go – is it a Quick Pick? Adult Book for Teens? Alex Award? Here’s the deal. It’s a great book. It would work for all three lists above, but won’t make Quick Picks –  it won’t be on their radar as an adult title. It won’t make the Alex, because it’s too issue focused (maybe?), which leads to why  the In the Margins List was created. For books like this that are perfect for multicultural teens with hard lives, yet might fall through the cracks.

Alternating authentic and perfectly rendered voices tell the stories of people living, working and connected to ILLC, Illinois Learning and Life Skills Center, which is essentially a nursing home for physically and mentally disabled teens. Yessinia’s story begins and ends the book. She’s just got out of Juvie, and according to her the Illinois Center for Cripple, whatever, is way worse than Juvie. She’s there because? Typical stuff that shouldn’t send a person either to Juvie or  to a place like ILLC; typical stuff like her Tia Nene dying and a kid getting in her face and calling her nasty words and Yessenia fighting as a result.  Highlighting the ups and downs, abuses and kind moments between multicultural staff and teens, the book is a fast and intense ride. Funny, sad, real, I find myself wondering what’s going on with them now. Cheri, who, last we saw was in a facility she couldn’t get out of; Mia, sexually abused by staff member; Pierre, sweet Pierre, who never felt he had enough to eat, and got transferred because he protected himself from the physically abusive staff; Joanne the one disabled person working there and Ricky the bus driver – are they still together? And did Jimmie and Yessenia live happily ever after?

As almost always, I wish the cover was better; in this case, could the book reflect the range of characters? I can see the book as a movie, and I can see the movie version cover. Note: after publishing this review, the publisher contacted me with the YA version of the cover they plan to publish. It’s looking hopeful!

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