One of my greatest literary indulgences these days is YA literature. I am increasingly blown away by the quality literature coming from authors working in this genre. Shadow Girl is one new paperback novel I couldn’t wait to get my hands on because of the adoption, foster care and poverty themes that run throughout. The promotional blurb alone led me to believe it would captivate both myself and my daughter, Payton. Together, we review appropriate young adult books here because she is as voracious a reader as I am.
Shadow Girl is a beautiful story, sad and gentle, with some small alarming moments that provide a genuine insight into how far too many young people and children live in North American society. It is a substantial social issues and coming of age story that revolves around how to negotiate that territory when you are basically alone in the world left to fend for yourself. Jules is 11 and her father is an alcoholic. We are told early on that her mother left the duo and no reason is provided for that, but this lack of background on Mom is not a detractor to the plot.
Jules father is emotionally abusive to her when he is drunk and overwhelmed. His character, to me, was accurate, more concerned about his next drink and his next girlfriend or party. Unfortunately Jules is left many nights all by herself at home and she develops quite a tough shell. She spends many afternoons hanging out at the local shopping mall where she gets to know a salesperson who will change her life in more ways than one.
After a lengthy bender, Jules father discovers that she has been apprehended by Children’s Aid. This begins a different section of Jules’ life. She is devastated to be taken from her father, despite the fact that he hasn’t been a parent to her in any respect for many years.
I enjoyed the author’s skill in showing details through the narrator’s eyes. Morrison never over explains or tells the reader what to think. For instance she describes the face of the father’s new girlfriend as puffy and red in a way subtle enough to inform everyone she too is likely an alcoholic or addict.
I could have handled more from this story and felt it ended a bit too neatly and a bit too quick. I am not a fan of literary and television accounts of foster care and fully understand there are all sorts of people who take care of kids in all kinds of cities throughout North America, but many depictions of foster care are inaccurate, in my experience. Obviously, an antagonist and conflict were necessary to drive the plot, but I think the author might have used a more creative tool than the insensitive foster parent cliche.
While I really enjoyed the naive narrator in Shadow Girl and have no problem recommending this for any child over the age of nine, I had minor issues with it as an adult. I found Jules to be a very gentle version, almost a muted down version, of most children I know who have come through the child welfare system. She remains naive and sweet and never really loses it. She escapes her foster care situation every chance she gets and she escapes her father’s home as well, but I expected more from a child raised by an alcoholic and shuffled through homes at a crucial age in her development. It seemed to me the real life Jules would have been acting out one heck of a lot more than this character did.
Patricia Morrison is a Canadian who lived in Toronto for many years but now lives in British Columbia with her family. She worked for the Ministry of Children and Families for many years in child welfare. This is her first novel.
My rating is $$$$ out of $$$$$. ( This is the kind of book that could easily be built into school curriculum. It is gentle and provides a great insight into poverty for young adults.)
Payton: (in her own words)
Shadow Girl is an emotional book, filled with happiness, sadness and anger, even frustration. It is set in 1963. I think this is probably similar to what one of my friends experienced when she was living with her birth family, before she was apprehended and placed in foster care in Ontario. The main character Jules is the same age as me. She has many of the same moods as I do and I completely understand her emotions. I feel the same way sometimes. When I read these books I like to put myself in the character’s shoes, just as I would if I were acting in a play. I like doing this because it helps me to feel what they are feeling. At times this was difficult with Jules because her life is sad, but I liked her imaginative spirit and how well she used it to express herself in the book. She made a lot of forts to keep herself feeling safe and she imagined all sorts of things like being a princess, a brave knight, a warrior and a superhero.
Jules is very creative.
I wish that every child who went into foster care could move quicker to adoption but still had rights to see their birth family when able to do so. More people should read books like this so they understand children who are in the child welfare system. I will probably lend Shadow Girl to many of my friends.
I had trouble putting this book down during free time at school and when I was reading on the school bus. The main character is very compelling. I liked that she was my age. It made me sad to read about her relationship with her Dad. I would read more by this author because she created a great character in Jules. She was strong and creative and she escaped her foster home often because she said it was a house full of strangers. I was hoping for a happy ending for Jules and her Dad.
Shadow Girl is by Patricia Morrison, Tundra Books, $12.99, paperback, 2013, 217 pages.
Payton’s rating was $$$$ 1/2 out of $$$$$. (Loved it.)