The tough outer shell of two girls in the foster care system covers an inner core worth finding in two middle grade novels.
The Great Gilly Hopkins (real name Galadriel), after several miserable foster home experiences and one near-miss on a forever home, travels with her case worker to her third home in her third year. She knows for sure she will never make the mistake of loving – or even liking – a family again even as Miss Ellis pleads for her to try to get along.
Katherine Paterson weaves a story of a foster parent, her blind friend, and a teacher who lavish Gilly with unconditional but sometimes tough love. The teacher’s introduces her to J. R. R. Tolkien’s middle earth legends where she discovers her namesake Galadriel, “the mightiest and fairest of all the Elves that remained in Middle-earth" and the "greatest of elven women."
In Pictures of Hollis Woods, Patricia Reilly Giff crafts a finely told story of a girl named as a baby for the place where she was abandoned. Chapter readings, labeled “pictures,” denote her artistic ability. “Picture One” has a teacher marking a big red X over the family she has drawn to illustrate the letter “W” before Hollis can explain it stands for “wish” or “want.” Like Gilly, she has bad foster care experiences and becomes a chronic runaway before a near-miss with a forever home. The “pictures” shift between her present placement with a former art teacher and flashbacks to that home.
Change begins for both girls when they become the helper instead of the helped and leads both to unexpected endings. I’ll not tell you how I liked the books – just that I’ve read both twice!
A bit of commentary on the foster care theme:
As this theme has thrust itself upon me this summer, I’ve been thankful for my daughter’s friend [and mine] who was in her wedding and works daily to advocate for children who are in unthinkable situations. When asked by her small son James what she did at work, she said she helped kids be safe because sometimes adults hurt kids. He asked if she would help his friends, and she assured him she would if they needed her. He said, “That’s cool, mommy.” I give my small shout-out to her and to others who serve as foster parents, adoptive parents, teachers, and advocates for these children. Even when it’s tough and discouraging to fight the roadblocks and the children seem unresponsive, I agree with James. I think these people are cool.