Girls Like Us - Gail Giles

I have now gone out and made sure that I have all of the books longlisted for the National Book Award. I read and reviewed a number of these previously, so now I have five left to read and review. This is one of those five (but would I expect anything less from the fabulous team at Candlewick?)

Girls Like Us is a unique novel in a number of respects, most notably in the fact that both protagonists are identified (and self-identified) as mentally disabled in some way. Biddy has a learning disability that she was born with, while Quincy is a young girl who is disabled due to the fact that her mother's boyfriend hit her in the head with a brick, disfiguring her and damaging her brain. Once the two girls graduate from school, they move into a house together, becoming caregivers for both each other and an older woman, Elizabeth. The two must rely on each other for comfort, knowledge, and emotional strength, and Elizabeth manages to help them along the way.

While I had moments of wonder how Elizabeth fit into the narrative (was she a colonial woman "helping the non-normative," or was she a truly sincere individual helping two young girls become functional young women), but I was enthralled with the narrative, overall, and I can definitely see why the NBA jury has included the novel in their longlist. I can't yet say if I think it could win, but I can see it getting onto the shortlist. If I had a position on the committee I would rank it between a fifth and sixth place at this point in time. But I'm just getting too much into my "award brain" at this point.
Most folk call me Quincy. I ain't pretty but I got me a pretty name. My whole name be Seqencia.
The one think all us Speddies can tell you is what kind of retard we are. Ms. Evans get wadded in a knot if anybody says retarded. We be "differently abled." We be "mentally challenged," she say. I got challenged when my mama's boyfriend hit my boyfriend with a brick. 
The two girls have distinctive voices and thoughts, at the same time that they have similar goals and misunderstandings about Elizabeth, the world, and each other. I feel the Giles did a good job of working through some difficult themes and situations, bringing the girls to life, but keeping them within the realm(s) of realism. The teachers and social workers are almost exceptionally positive and well-meaning, and while I don't believe that it is necessarily unrealistic, I think there is some idealism that overshadows a few moments within the overall story arc. It's mostly this that makes me vacillate between a fifth and sixth place position for this novel.

The book deals with a number of issues which will make it relevant for numerous audiences. Giles covers race, gender, weight and eating issues, as well as aggression and sexual abuse. Throughout the novel, it is obvious that Biddy is feeling rather apprehensive about boys, and for good reason:
Everything was nice till Miss Lizzy said that I was gonna be pretty. Pretty was what made it happen. I can still her 'em whispering in my ear. "You so pretty. You body so fine. You so hot, baby." I her 'em in the night. I hear 'em every time a boy look at me.
Giles is a talented writer, no doubt, and Girls Like Us is a very strong novel, with obvious merits. I can see why the NBA jury saw this is a top 10 book, and I think it has a chance, for sure! Whatever your background, this novel is a beautiful reminder that no matter what your background, your mental status, or your learning ability, people are capable of incredible acts of beauty and thoughtfulness that will make you (re)consider your view of humanity.
I knew that Biddy and me—both of us—we wasn't nobody. We count.
I'm sending Gail Giles some happy thoughts in the coming months before the shortlist announcement!!

Highly Recommended

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