Only the craziest, most violent inmates go to Segregation. We’re talking girls who really should be in mental facilities, only they got sent here because their families are either too poor or too stupid to hire a good lawyer. Most of them can’t sit next to you for a second without pulling out your hair or jabbing you in the eye with their finger. They’re too dangerous to be around the rest of us so they get locked up alone, which only makes them worse. The worst punishment Brunesfield can come up with is sending you down there with them.
—Burning, by Danielle Rollins
Seventeen-year-old Angela Davis has been an inmate at Brunesfield Correctional Facility for almost two years. Of all the girls there, she and her cellmates Issie and Cara have been there the longest, and they’ve got each others’ backs—Cara even figured out that Angela was dyslexic, which helped her on the road to getting her GED—they’d leave in a hot second if they could, but until that day comes, they know the routine. If Angela can stay far, far away from trouble, she’s up for release in three months… but at Brunesfield, trouble is inescapable.
Now there’s a new girl at Brunesfield, and everything about her is unusual. She’s one of the few white girls, for one. She’s easily the youngest girl there, for another—she’s 10, but looks like she’s seven. And she, this tiny little girl, arrives in chains, with an escort of armed guards—in the past 18 months, Angela’s never seen anything like it. And then she’s informed that as a condition of her early release, she’s got to take this clearly dangerous girl into her cell and under her wing.
Burning is a solid paranormal thriller, and it’s a solid story about girls in the criminal justice system. It’s an old plot—shady organization attempting to control super-powered kids—but Rollins makes it feel fresh with strong characterization, a diverse cast, a physically and emotionally claustrophobic atmosphere, and by rolling in lots of realistic, thoughtful details about the life in juvie. For instance: the lack of new reading material, and the importance of audiobooks to kids who aren’t strong readers; differences in culture, upbringing, and economic class; the varied ways that the girls ended up incarcerated; that even with strong trust, there is a tendency to keep some secrets close.
She also does a whole lot with power dynamics—between inmates, between guards and inmates, between guards and administration—and she shows, again and again, the rarity of true loyalty. Rollins shows how easily kids without advocates slip between the cracks, or worse, become prey for predatory adults. The guards’ personalities and motivations are just as varied as the girls’, and while there is a clearly sadistic guard, Rollins doesn’t depict sexual violence or even really the threat of it.
She does go down the inmate/guard romance road, but she does it in a way that both acknowledges and explores the entirely unequal power dynamic. Even better, the romance isn’t at all the focus of the story—instead, at the center is the relationship between Angela and Issie and Cara, three girls who understand the necessity of looking out for themselves first, but who also consistently look out for each other.
Nonfiction follow-ups! Girls in Justice, by Richard Ross, is an outstanding look at girls in the juvenile justice system, with photos and essays from criminologists and hundreds of first-person accounts from the girls themselves. If you haven’t read it yet, do yourself a favor and request it from your library TODAY. And I haven’t read Monique W. Morris’ Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools, but based on the description in the Kirkus review, I’m bumping it right up to the top of my reading list.
In addition to running a library in rural Maine, Leila Roy blogs at Bookshelves of Doom, is currently serving on the Amelia Bloomer Project committee, is a contributor at Book Riot, hangs out on Twitter a lot—possibly too much—and watches a shocking amount of television. Her cat is a murderer.