The unsettling story of a mute, nearly catatonic seven-year-old in her special-education classroom.
Hayden’s dramatic account of a single school year shows the author (The Tiger’s Child, 1995, etc.) struggling to break through the reserve of electively mute Venus Fox. The girl is one of nine children, all of whom have been in one form or another of special education and all subjected to family abuse. When Hayden first meets Venus, the child is so silent and unresponsive that deafness and mental retardation seem possible diagnoses. With painstaking slowness, the teacher gains the child’s trust with a variety of techniques, using comic-book heroine She-Ra as a role model and crafting a cardboard “sword of power” decorated with paste jewels. Hayden spends every spare moment with Venus, reading children’s stories to her while the other students are at recess. Although the girl ever so slowly comes out of her shell in the classroom, her home life rapidly deteriorates. Abused by her mother’s boyfriend, she is eventually hospitalized and removed to foster care. Hayden’s clashes with Julie, a teaching aide whose classroom approach is distinctly at odds with hers, serve as background to this drama. Added to these narratives are the stories of other students in the class: endearing Billy, a nine-year-old with a bad mouth, explosive temper, and genius IQ; Jesse, an obsessive eight-year-old with Tourette’s syndrome; and Shane and Zane, six-year-old identical twins suffering from fetal alcohol syndrome. While Venus is perhaps the most damaged, all the kids need the help competently delivered by the author. Set in an unspecified location and year (presumably to protect the students’ privacy), the story takes on a timeless quality. As well as representing all special-needs children, the students come into focus as individuals about whom the reader cares deeply. An epilogue sees them into early adulthood.
Compelling, well written, and extremely moving.