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two books' take on foster care

In the last couple weeks I've read a couple of books, one very good and one not as good, that I thought were an interesting juxtaposition. Our read-aloud chapter book for the last while has been Pine Island Home, by Polly Horvath. We loved her silly story The Pepins and Their Problems a couple years ago, so I thought this one about kids living on their own on a farm on the Vancouver coast would be a sure hit... but for some reason it didn't quite land with us. The book does a great job subverting expectations about what's going to happen next for the precarious family of orphans, but we actually found that more stressful than delightful. I think that might be because we wanted a little more character development and atmospheric detail? In any case, we saw it through to the end but were glad to move on to a more compelling story.

I did think it was interesting comparing one facet of Pine Island Home with a book I read on my own a couple days ago: Fighting Words, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. It's about a pair of sisters who are in foster care, with their mom in jail after blowing up a motel room cooking meth. The narrator is ten-year-old Della, and she's a fantastically convincing and compelling character with plenty of development. The book deals with—is about!—issues of sexual abuse and child poverty, so neither of my boys for whom it would have been appropriate felt like they wanted to read it, which is fine. But I felt like it was a super valuable read.

The big difference between the two books was their treatment of foster care. In Pine Island Home the kids—four girls from 8 to 14—lose their parents to a tsunami and then, after some time with a caretaker, are sent to Vancouver to live with their great aunt only to find on arriving that she's just died as well. Since nobody else is looking out for them they decide to live in the house on their own, and their greatest fear throughout the story is that they'll be discovered by social services, separated, and taken into care. In Fighting Words Della also begins the story frightened of social services: her mom's abusive boyfriend, who took Della and her older sister in after their mom went to prison, threatens Della that he'll send her to a group home if she complains. But once she actually does enter the foster care system she finds it's made up of people who really care about kids and are willing to stand strong in support of her—even when she's not able to give them much in return.

That arc makes Fighting Words read as real and true. Pine Island Home not so much. That story's four girls aren't rich, but the way the story goes what stands out the most is their privilege. There's some talk of the trauma of losing their parents, but it doesn't really seem real. And they land on their feet in a beautiful multi-acre property on the ocean where they have a real chance of living on their own unless they get found out. I think I understand why the story plays out that way: we want stories about independent kids but we don't want them to be too traumatic. And in the 21st century it's hard to think of kids having realistic independent adventures that aren't. But Fighting Words shows that there are actually plenty of kids having adventurous lives against their will. When Della hears that some kids in her new school never have to worry about where their next meal is coming from she's amazed; she'd never known anyone who wasn't food-insecure. Unfortunately that's very much a reality in 2021, and it's wonderful to have stories that reflect it.

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