Biddy and Quincy are two special education students. Or at least, they were special education students until they graduated from high school. Now, they’ve been placed together in an apartment that sits behind a home of an older woman who they’re responsible for helping out. She’s almost like their overseer, but she’s really not (or at least, she’s not hugely invested in that role).
The two girls were placed together following graduation for legal reasons, but the caseworker who paired them together did so for very specific reasons. Ones which Quincy can’t make sense of and ones which leave her more frustrated than content.
See, Quincy is a rough-around-the-edges kind of girl. She’s got a facial scar, thanks to a horrific young home life, and she wears her hurt, her anger, and her defenses like armor. When she’s moved into this apartment, she’s given a job to work outside the home, at a local store. She’s capable of doing it, despite what others might think of or perceive of her skills because of her education. Though Quincy’s told she and Biddy are to share their home responsibilities — it’s a way for the two of them to both acquire new skills — Quincy is a good cook and takes on the cooking for all meals, rather than splitting the task with Biddy. In return, Biddy cleans.
Biddy is almost the polar opposite of Quincy. She’s exceptionally sweet and kind, with a large heart. This is despite her own rough past, one which comes through periodically in the story but isn’t fully exposed until it needs to be. Unlike Quincy, Biddy wears her scars internally, and her external persona is that gentle nature. She’s not rough. She’s not tough. She mothers a duck and ducklings that appear in her garden, taking extreme efforts to protect and nurture them, to ensure that the babies and mom survive in their out-of-place home. But Biddy is scared, and that scared comes out in somewhat unexpected ways.
Girls Like Us by Gail Giles is a dual-voiced novel, written with short chapters and in a style that reflects the authentic voices of these two girls. They don’t speak or think in entirely perfect sentences or use proper grammar — but it’s never once distracting nor is it belittling. In many ways, this choice in style is exceptionally respectful of these girls, how they think, and why seeing how they think this way matters. Never does it feel like the girls are being made fun of nor that their special education status makes them anything less than fully human.
This isn’t an easy read, though, despite the fact it is fast paced. It’s engaging, but the horrors both girls experience are unbelievable. Biddy, who is sweet on the outside, has been raped in the past. Not only had she been raped, but she had become pregnant and her caretaker at the time forced her to give up the baby for adoption. Though Quincy thinks of her as a slutty kind of girl initially — and Quincy is quick to judge the fact she’s fat to seeing her once with candy and snacks tucked inside her clothes — but as Biddy opens up to Quincy following something horrific that happens to her (spoiler: Quincy is also a victim of sexual violence, at the hands of a coworker who we know early on is suspicious), Quincy begins to see that Biddy’s exterior isn’t the whole of her.
There’s a lot to mine here in terms of armor and how we wear our scars. This is a realization Quincy comes to, too: she’s biting and tough in her words, and her scar becomes quite representative of how she feels on the inside. Biddy wears her wounds with her body. She eats — or did eat — for comfort and solace. While many times this character trait can be problematic in books, as it’s such an easy way to explain why a character is fat, rather than allowing them to be fat, Giles does a great job not doing that here. She’s giving an explanation, but she’s not making Biddy’s life about her body. Where it once was what Quincy saw as what defined Biddy, Quincy is the one who realizes what a crummy way it is to judge someone. She knows she wouldn’t want people to judge her by her exterior. Perhaps, too, it’s worth mentioning here that Quincy is a person of color, and that becomes a topic she broaches in her side of the story.
Girls Like Us isn’t perfect, despite how many things it does right. At times the format and the pacing mean that huge plot points are rushed over or shoehorned in in a way that doesn’t feel authentic. There’s a moment when — spoiler — the woman who Biddy and Quincy work for tries to reunite Biddy with the child she’d given up for adoption. This entire scene felt uncomfortable because it wasn’t fleshed out well, and while that is part of the point (Lizabeth hadn’t thought this through when she decided to pursue this), it felt like one thing too many in a story that had been handling a lot of issues very well.
That said, one of the best parts of this book, and why I keep thinking about it long after finishing it, is that Giles wrote a book about girls. There’s not a romance here, and even when boys become a problem within the story, they’re not turned into enemies — Biddy’s fearful of them, but she’s not hateful toward them. More importantly, girls aren’t enemies, either. There aren’t “other girls” in this book. There aren’t girls who are special or more valuable or more different than others. These are two girls who learn how to work with one another and who come to love one another for their strengths and for their flaws. These are two girls who, despite being so different, have a shared core to them. Quincy and Biddy build one another up and they are there for one another through some really tough stuff in a way that empowers their relationship and in a way that empowers them individually. They’re not saved and they’re not saving. They’re respecting each other and learning how to grow and become individuals. This is a powerful and all-too-rare message in YA. Though these girls have been a part of special education, they aren’t any less human than anyone else.
Giles respects these girls so much, and it’s through Quincy and Biddy’s voices that we begin to understand how labels such as “differently abled” and “special education” or any other euphemism can be useful and can be hurtful. As Quincy says to one of her coworkers, she’s not dumb. She’s just been given a different education because some things are hard for her to grasp. It doesn’t mean she’s unable to function in the world; she just has to adjust her functioning to suit her strengths and accommodate her weaknesses.
Pass Girls Like Us off to readers who like gritty novels, as well as those who like a fast-paced book. This will appeal to reluctant readers, as well as more advanced readers, and it certainly should be given to those who are seeking stories set after high school and not in college. These girls are part of the working class, and Giles knocks the economics of this out of the park. Likewise, readers who are looking for books about girls, about friendship, about tolerance, and about how those with learning challenges operate in the real world will find so much to enjoy here. By far, my favorite Gail Giles read.
Girls Like Us is available now. Copy picked up from the library.