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Posts Tagged ‘Girls Like Us

Girls Like Us by Gail Giles is a sympathetic and unflinching novel about two cognitively-challenged young women. Their developing friendship is what most struck a chord with me. The violence perpetrated against them isn’t sensationalized, but rather felt realistic and true to the theme that life can be cruel. Winner of the Family Schneider Award, Girls Like Us is an absorbing and powerful story about voices often not heard in literature.

Told in alternating viewpoints, each chapter reveals the perspective of the two girls on the situations unfolding them. At first, Biddy and Quincey seem to have little in common except that they’re both graduates of their high school’s special education program. Biddy is white and is always shyly hiding behind her fat exterior. Kind-hearted and sensitive, she also remains scared to step out her front door, especially when men are around. In contrast, Quincey is mixed race and always has her defenses up. She also bluntly express what’s on her mind and faces the world with her fists up. When the two are assigned to live together, with Biddy serving as housekeeper to an elderly lady and Quincey working at a local grocery store, slowly everything changes.

Initially, their perspectives are totally antithetical. Take for example how they view their living arrangements. Biddy views Miss Lizzy’s house as something that came out of a storybook. She feels like a princess going up into a castle. She’s also excited to finally have her own room. In contrast, Quincey describes the house as being about “as big as a hummingbird’s nest” with only a shower instead of a tub. She decides though to make the best of the situation, as long as “that stick of an ole woman be leavin’ me alone.” A pivotal moment happens when Quiney learns that Biddy can’t cook. She convinces Biddy to let her cook and then to hide the truth except, when Biddy actually has to deliver her first meal, Biddy can’t bear to start the relationship of with a life. Quincey thinks this confession will get them fired, but instead earns them praise for being able to work together.

Many other relationship-changing events happen, but the one that binds them together is the rape of Quincey by a co-worker. All along Biddy has been slowly coming out of her shell. The arrival of Stephen, the son of a friend of the family, forces Biddy to rethink her fear of the men. The need to buy dry corn for a mother and her ducklings drives her out of the house and into town. All along Quincey has also been opening herself up to friendship. She buys night lights to help Biddy sleep without nightmares. She also invests in a television for the girls, because Biddy will like the cartoons and maybe learn a few more songs. Then comes the evening when Quincey doesn’t return at a normal hour from her job, Biddy wanders the streets looking for her, and the girls end up bringing comfort to one another with revelations of what happened in their most horrendous experiences.

Giles took ten years to flesh out Girls Like Us. She drew on her experiences as a special education teacher to write the story of Biddy and Quincey. In my interview with her and elsewhere, Giles states, “I just flatly believed those girls voices needed to be heard.” The result is a hard-hitting and unique story.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

GailGilesGail Giles wrote Girls in Us in part to give a voice to her former special education students. When she taught remedial readers, she learned that one reason they didn’t like to read was that the books didn’t connect with their lives. Giles also thought having all the books out there always offering hope was doing a disservice to teens. “The last thing to develop in a person’s brain is the sense of consequence, but the legal system decides someone’s not old enough to make a good decision about driving, getting married, buying alcohol or joining the military until 18 or 20 but we can put them in jail forever at 12.” Giles wanted to write stories that shows that sometimes it can’t be fixed and that reality is harsh. Her unconventional endings are because she wants readers to think and talk about them, not just easily dismiss and forget about them.

As for her own life, Giles didn’t have a happy or particularly safe childhood. Reading saved her. Early on, she liked animal stories and humor. Later, she tended to like stories without resolutions and dark humor. After her Nancy Drew phase in elementary school, she moved onto complex novels such Lord of the Flies and To Kill a Mockingbird. “If you are angry, scared… whatever, there’s a book out there that tells you to hang on not to hang up. Just read and find your way. And if your world is easy and good and safe — read to understand those that aren’t.”

As for how she came to write, Giles also considers herself a rebellious but intelligent child. She recalls a pivotal moment in grade four. A nun came to my desk, told her that she was having a bad day, and needed a laugh. Could Giles write her a funny story? The nun told her to write a story about a family having a holiday dinner. This topic bored Giles, but then the nun said write it from an ant’s point of view. “So, I wrote. And erased and wrote some more. And I handed it in. The nun took the paper and began reading. And she chuckled. Then she blushed. I guess because she had chuckled. Then she laughed right out loud … I was only a legend in my own mind, but something real had happened. I was successful and had won approval. And I hadn’t been in trouble for an entire twenty minutes.”


ALLISON: Describe a perfect childhood moment.

GAIL: The day I learned to read. I remember my first word. Egg.

ALLISON: You said you were a rebellious child. How so? What was your most defiant moment?

GAIL: I rebelled against anything and everything, but I remember most refusing to wear dresses when I was younger. This was in the fifties and very not done.

ALLISON: If you were to write the story of your teen life, what kind of novel might it create?

GAIL: Unbelievably good kid at school, good grades, socially acceptable, a complete horror at home. I was very unhappy at home and didn’t fit in there.

ALLISON: Who served as a role model for you during adolescence?

GAIL: My best friend’s mother, Mrs. Beeler.

ALLISON: Why did you decide to become a teacher?

GAIL: I loved my whole school experience and wanted it to continue. Teachers and librarians literally saved me from myself.

ALLISON: You’ve lived in several states. Which is your favorite?

GAIL: Texas. My grandchildren live here and it’s uh. . .Texas.


ALLISON: Why did Girls Like Us take ten years to write? What kept you going?

GAIL: I wrote it ten years ago and it was just before it would be accepted and it wasn’t ready and really fleshed out. I worked on it on and off during those ten years. I just flatly believed those girls voices needed to be heard.

ALLISON: You write books that show the real consequences of bad decisions.

GAIL: What kind of research goes into writing these type of books?I do very little research. Teaching school for twenty years was twenty years worth. I do research if a write about a place I haven’t been or something that’s specific.

ALLISON: What is it about reading books that can save one?

GAIL: You can find yourself in books and find others like you and take yourself on a journey or plain old comfort yourself. You can show someone the way and learn to take your own new path. books consoled me and let me know I wasn’t alone and wasn’t so worthless and I was led to believe when I was young.

ALLISON: How can writing be therapeutic?

GAIL: Write often, don’t try to write a novel all at once, it’s like the old adage writing a novel is like driving a car with the head lights on, you can only see as far as the lights but you can complete the journey.

ALLISON: Have you ever considered writing for other ages such as picture books?

GAIL: Picture books are way too hard to write, but I’m working on a middle grade right now.

ALLISON: What are some of the best books featuring disabilities? What about them works?

GAIL: Right now the best book that has a character with a disability is All the Light You Cannot See. The main character is a young girl that is blind. I think what makes the best ones work is that the character is fully realized instead of just short cutting by concentrating on just the disability, like that’s the only thing that’s important about the character.

I’ll be back later in March with a review of Girls Like Us. Because I have spring break, March will be a little different for my posts. The first week I’ll post daily teasers and the second week I’ll post daily reviews. Save the date for my review of Giles’s book: March 10!

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