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2020 Reading Challenge: Good Kings, Bad Kings by Susan Nussbaum

By Sarah Adams Permalink


For this week's Book Bingo I decided to find a book written by or about a person with disabilities. Good Kings, Bad Kings by Susan Nussbaum is both. This book is a difficult read emotionally. It deals with physical and sexual abuse as well as neglect of children with disabilities. It's heavy and it's infuriating and it's heartbreaking. This book is not for the faint of heart, but it addresses a topic that is often overlooked and a population that is grossly underrepresented in literature. 

Inside the halls of ILLC, an institution for juveniles with disabilities, we discover a place that is deeply different from and yet remarkably the same as the world outside. Nussbaum crafts a multifaceted portrait of a way of life hidden from most of us. In this isolated place on Chicago's South Side, friendships are forged, trust is built, and love affairs begin. It's in these alliances that the residents of this neglected community ultimately find the strength to bond together, resist their mistreatment, and finally fight back. And in the process, each is transformed.

Millions of children with disabilities live in institutions. Often, these children lose contact or have little contact with their families and live their entire lives locked up and segregated. Good Kings, Bad Kings enters the world of one such institution and follows the lives of the residents and employees of the center. 

I have a brother with disabilities. He is legally blind and has severe learning disabilities. My parents are/were drug addicts and my stepmom, his mother, died when he was nine-years-old. My father eventually got clean and was able to continue raising my brother himself, however Jeremy came close to being a child in one of these group homes. For that reason, this book struck me on a personal level. I saw so much of my brother in the different children in the institution. These children are no different than children in any middle or high school throughout the country. They have attitude problems. They form friendships. They are feisty. They fall in love. They have interests and dreams and goals. They are individuals. It was refreshing to read a novel that didn't just include a token character with a disability. Instead, Nussbaum took the time to deeply develop each and every character. The book switches perspectives from 7 different characters, which is a lot to keep up with, but that's what made the book so special to me. Every character is different because every child is different. Good Kings, Bad Kings shows that children with disabilities aren't angels, they go though all the struggles and joys of adolescence and are not and should not be defined by their disabilities. 

The book also covers another important topic, the power of representation. Until the hiring of a new receptionist, a paraplegic woman in a wheelchair, the children in the institution had never even seen an adult with a disability. For the first time the children really felt seen and understood. She showed them magazines and articles of other adults with disabilities who have achieved great things and empowered them to know that they could also do great things. For many of the characters in the novel, this representation was the first time they were ever shown that they had a chance to actually accomplish their dreams.  

The receptionist wasn't the only champion for these children, however. She, along with two other employees, begin to see the dark side of these institutions and how easily cases of abuse and neglect are covered up. They, along with the children themselves, work together to fight injustice within the institution that is supposed to protect them. These injustices are hard to read. There is sexual abuse, physical abuse, neglect, and child death. However, like most things in life, we can't just turn a blind eye to these very real issues just because they make us uncomfortable. While this novel is fiction, the unfortunate reality is that this institution could be any real institution throughout the world. 

In the end, Good Kings, Bad Kings is story of humanity. The joys of humanity and the evils of humanity. It will make you laugh. It will make you cry. It's an important read for those of us with friends and family with disabilities, those with disabilities ourselves, teachers, and the public in general. Give it a chance, it may just change some of your perspectives and predispositions. 




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