Hardcover, 304 pages
Published March 1st 2016 by Greenwillow Books
One part hopeful, and one part lovely, Erin Entrada Kelly proves that that she's definitely a voice to watch with her sophomore novel.
Soledad has always been able to escape into the stories she creates. Just like her mother always could. And Soledad has needed that escape more than ever in the five years since her mother and sister died and her father moved Sol and her youngest sister from the Philippines to Louisiana. Then he left, and all Sol and Ming have now is their evil stepmother, Vea. Sol has protected Ming all this time, but then Ming begins to believe that Auntie Jove—their mythical, world-traveling aunt—is really going to come rescue them. Have Sol’s stories done more harm than good? Can she protect Ming from this impossible hope? Erin Entrada Kelly writes with grace, imagination, and deepest heart about the meaning of family and about finding hope in the hardest circumstances.
Kelly introduces us to twelve-year-old Sol and seven-year-old Ming, two sisters from the Philippines who have spent the last five years living in a tiny, cramped apartment with their not-so-loving stepmother, Vera. Their father has left them behind and returned back to the Philippines, and the sisters only have each other to depend on, in their challenging day-to-day lives. So when Ming insists that their supposedly long-lost Auntie Jove is on her way to rescue them, Sol decides to take it on herself to rescue her her sister...
It's not that often that I'll laugh and tear up when reading a book, but such was the case with Girls. We begin the book by realizing that Sol and Ming have an undeniably tough life. Not only are they financially strapped, they also live with a stepmother Vera, who clearly doesn't want them.
While Sol has spent most of her life using her imagination to combat Vera's treatment, she also depends on best friend Manny and newfound friend Caroline to get her through tough times. Kelly deftly shows how these friendships challenge Sol and keep her grounded, including helping her realize that she's not alone in her struggles. Though individuals like Caroline may not suffer the same vitriol or anger by a Vera-figure in their life, Caroline equally struggles in a family that ignores her. It's beautiful reminder that none of us are alone in our troubles; there are people who understand in their own ways.
While Vera is clearly, undeniably emotionally harsh to the girls, Kelly thoughtfully does ask readers to consider just how Vera ended up this way. There's a nod to the fact that she started off as a young and carefree girl very much like Sol and Ming themselves, and readers are left to drawn their own conclusions on how life and circumstance have made her emotionally hard. It's kind of a tough lesson for younger readers to absorb, but I applaud Kelly for taking that risk, and emphasizing the need for empathy and understanding, early on.
Outside of the core Sol/Vera/Ming story, readers will likely appreciate the kindness and interest shown by secondary characters, as well. There's an especially touching side story involving a neighbor's good intentions, and Kelly makes it a point to subtly challenge readers to question just how they would act if they were that neighbor in that situaiton.
Readers will likely also appreciate the nods to both Filipino and Chinese culture throughout the book. Kelly shows an obvious appreciation for her heritage vis-a-vis Solidad, and readers will likely appreciate Sol's recognition that she actually has more in common than she realized, with her Chinese neighbors.
Of special note: Kelly doesn't hesitate to show a challenging, occasionally upsetting relationship between Sol, Ming and their stepmom Vera.
While I applaud Kelly's overt recognition that sometimes, adults aren't the protective, loving influences that we would all like them to be, educators and parents should be aware that younger readers will likely have a lot of questions on why Vera behaves the way she does, and why other adults don't step in more fully, as the book progresses.
Sol and Ming's experiences should be viewed be a good jumping off point for adults to talk to younger readers about relationships that they should be aware of, and how they can possibly help if they experience something like what Ming and Sol experience, or if they see it happening to people they know.
Sol's journey is challenging and difficult to absorb at times, but also serves as a reminder that it is possible to find the bright spots in a dark day, and to continuing to strive toward bigger and better things. Though the ending is admittedly ambiguous, Kelly leaves readers with the definite impression that Sol and Ming will find their way.
Strongly recommend for fans of contemporary fiction, who don't mind hints of realism in their fiction.
About the author:
Erin Entrada Kelly is the author of Blackbird Fly. She is a Filipina-American who was raised in south Louisiana and now lives in Pennsylvania. Erin’s mother was the first in her family to immigrate to the United States from the Philippines. You can find her online at www.erinentradakelly.com, on Facebook, and on Twitter @erinkellytweets.