Good Kings Bad Kings: A Novel

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Overview

Bellwether Award winner Susan Nussbaum’s powerful novel invites us into the lives of a group of typical teenagers—alienated, funny, yearning for autonomy—except that they live in an institution for juveniles with disabilities. This unfamiliar, isolated landscape is much the same as the world outside: friendships are forged, trust is built, love affairs are kindled, and rules are broken. But those who call it home have little or no control over their fate. Good Kings Bad Kings challenges our definitions of what it...

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Good Kings Bad Kings: A Novel

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Overview

Bellwether Award winner Susan Nussbaum’s powerful novel invites us into the lives of a group of typical teenagers—alienated, funny, yearning for autonomy—except that they live in an institution for juveniles with disabilities. This unfamiliar, isolated landscape is much the same as the world outside: friendships are forged, trust is built, love affairs are kindled, and rules are broken. But those who call it home have little or no control over their fate. Good Kings Bad Kings challenges our definitions of what it means to be disabled in a story told with remarkable authenticity and in voices that resound with humor and spirit.

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Editorial Reviews

Reviews

"Nussbaum wonderfully sweetens a stark subject with doses of idiosyncratic humor and hard-earned pathos . . . [she] upholds the individuality and integrity of her characters, never stooping to saccharine cliches or Hollywood manipulation . . . [a] moving story." —The Wall Street Journal

"This is a world as foreign to most as another planet. That Nussbaum is able to make it as real and as painful and joyful and alive as she does is a spectacular accomplishment . . . a joy for readers." —Chicago Tribune

"Each character tells his or her own story in alternating chapters with lively, diverse, authentic voices . . . Nussbaum will have readers rooting for these brave, vulnerable teens to fight for better lives." —School Library Journal

"Saucy, brutally funny, gritty, profane, poignant and real." —The Kansas City Star

"A knockout . . . Nussbaum possesses an astonishing ear for idiosyncratic voices, and a talent for creating characters who appear in full bloom within a few sentences. This is an easy book to love and admire--but more than that, it's a book that has the potential to change forever the conversation we are (or are not) having about what it means to be 'disabled' . . . In Good Kings Bad Kings, we have the rare opportunity to be awakened by hearing the truth delivered with beauty alongside agony, despair interwoven with possibility." —Los Angeles Review of Books

“Nussbaum’s dramatist skills translate powerfully into fiction as she gives voices to an infatuating cast of characters . . . This is unquestionably an authentic, galvanizing, and righteous novel.” —Booklist (starred review)

“Well-meaning, well-written and well-plotted, with qualified justice for some of the bad guys and hope for a few of the oppressed: A most appropriate winner of the 2012 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction.” —Kirkus Reviews

“A stirring debut from a determined writer and activist.” —Publishers Weekly

starred review Booklist

“A mighty first novel . . . Authentic, galvanizing, and righteous.”

Publishers Weekly
Playwright Nussbaum’s debut novel—the 2012 winner of Barbara Kingsolver’s PEN/Bellwether Prize—takes readers behind the scenes at a facility for disabled teens. Woven from short individual chapters in first-person narrative, at first it reads like a series of darkly funny, often frightening character sketches. As the book progresses, however, the darker side of the facility’s management and desire for profit emerges. From Yessenia (transferred from Juvie), to Mia (keeping a horrifying secret), to Ricky and Joanne (devoted and determined to make a positive difference), to Michelle (working for the management company and slowly growing aware of what her job entails), these individuals are complicated, funny, heartbreaking, and inspiring. How they are pushed beyond breaking points and emerge into the wider world is captivating. Nussbaum’s obvious gifts as a playwright make this read more like a performance piece than a novel. Some of the cadence and vernacular choices can distract, as can the use of the present tense, but the book offers insight into the lives of those hidden away from the public, and it will have readers questioning “the system’s” choices and the public’s complacency. This is a stirring debut from a determined writer and activist. (May 28)
From the Publisher

"Nussbaum wonderfully sweetens a stark subject with doses of idiosyncratic humor and hard-earned pathos . . . [she] upholds the individuality and integrity of her characters, never stooping to saccharine cliches or Hollywood manipulation . . . [a] moving story." —The Wall Street Journal

"This is a world as foreign to most as another planet. That Nussbaum is able to make it as real and as painful and joyful and alive as she does is a spectacular accomplishment . . . a joy for readers." —Chicago Tribune

"Each character tells his or her own story in alternating chapters with lively, diverse, authentic voices . . . Nussbaum will have readers rooting for these brave, vulnerable teens to fight for better lives." —School Library Journal

"Saucy, brutally funny, gritty, profane, poignant and real." —The Kansas City Star

"A knockout . . . Nussbaum possesses an astonishing ear for idiosyncratic voices, and a talent for creating characters who appear in full bloom within a few sentences. This is an easy book to love and admire--but more than that, it's a book that has the potential to change forever the conversation we are (or are not) having about what it means to be 'disabled' . . . In Good Kings Bad Kings, we have the rare opportunity to be awakened by hearing the truth delivered with beauty alongside agony, despair interwoven with possibility." —Los Angeles Review of Books

“Nussbaum’s dramatist skills translate powerfully into fiction as she gives voices to an infatuating cast of characters . . . This is unquestionably an authentic, galvanizing, and righteous novel.” —Booklist (starred review)

“Well-meaning, well-written and well-plotted, with qualified justice for some of the bad guys and hope for a few of the oppressed: A most appropriate winner of the 2012 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction.” —Kirkus Reviews

“A stirring debut from a determined writer and activist.” —Publishers Weekly

VOYA - Marlyn Beebe
The Illinois Learning and Life Skills Center (ILLC) is a state-run housing facility for physically challenged youth. It is staffed by medical personnel but it is little more than a storage place for the kids. Each chapter is told from the viewpoint of a different resident or staff member. Yessenia Lopez was transferred to ILLC from a juvenile detention center, where she was sent after physically assaulting a high-school classmate who taunted her about her disability. Twenty-one-year-old Teddy Dobbs, who lives there because his father cannot take care of him, is about to age out of the Center and has no idea where he will go. Mia Oviedo, nineteen, has cerebral palsy and has lived there since she was thirteen. Joanne Madsen, handicapped when she was hit by a bus as a teen, recently began work as the data-entry clerk computerizing the Center's records. She develops a friendship with Ricky Hernandez, who has been an orderly and driver for some time. Both realize how difficult it is for the residents and try to make things better for them, finding it difficult because they have no authority. Narratives are honest and frank, and written in the dialect of the speaker. Nussbaum has written a moving and thought-provoking book that is also very difficult to read. Recommend to your most mature readers and those who are interested in social programs and services. Reviewer: Marlyn Beebe
Library Journal
Winner of the 2012 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, playwright Nussbaum's debut novel opens with tenth-grader Yessenia Lopez narrating from the "punishment room" at the Illinois Learning and Life Skills Center (ILLC), a state-run nursing facility for adolescents with disabilities. Joanne Madsen, disabled by an accident, works as a data-entry clerk at the center and provides insight about the conditions she finds. Readers meet other residents and employees in short, first-person pieces as their struggles and dramas intersect; ties among the characters are deepened by Yessenia's friendship with certified nursing assistant Jimmie Kendrick and Joanne's growing romantic relationship with Ricky Hernandez, the center's driver. Meanwhile, Michelle Volkmann, recruiter for the corporate parent company, trolls area hospitals and events for bodies to fill beds and turn profits, even as patient neglect and penny-pinching threaten the well-being of all associated with ILLC. VERDICT A compelling and authentic vision of life in facilities for the disabled, told with humor and immediacy, this work will appeal to the many fans of Dave Pelzer's memoir, A Child Called It. Fans of Barbara Kingsolver, Toni Morrison, and Julia Alvarez, as well as mature young adults, will appreciate the journey of these strong young people.—Jennifer B. Stidham, Houston Community Coll.-Northeast
Kirkus Reviews
Playwright/activist Nussbaum makes her fiction debut with a scathing look at life inside an institution for disabled juveniles. Located next to the old Chicago stockyards, the Illinois Learning and Life Skills Center is hardly as nurturing as its name suggests. Formerly state-run, ILLC is now operated by a private company whose main interest is in maximizing profits; while Whitney-Palm cuts costs and corners, ILLC's doctors get kickbacks for ordering millions of dollars in unnecessary tests for their patients. One of the "houseparents" is sexually abusing a terrified incest survivor; one of the guards is a brutal bully who eventually breaks a boy's jaw. Even the well-meaning employees are so exhausted and overstretched due to staff cuts that one wheelchair-bound kid dies of third-degree burns from a scalding shower when left unsupervised. Nussbaum unfolds her story in a polyphonic narrative whose colorful individual voices somewhat mitigate the parade of grim particulars. Tough yet vulnerable Yessenia is a particularly engaging narrator among the residents, and gentle, caring guard Ricky has a touching romance with Joanne, a disabled activist who does clerical work at ILLC and serves as the novel's political conscience. Nussbaum doesn't deal in shades of gray: Whitney-Palm donates big bucks to Republicans and Democrats alike to make sure its misdeeds go unpunished, and odious VP Tim denies workers raises while enjoying his sailboat and house in Florida. Since the author herself works with disabled teens, these all-black villains may well be based on fact, but they make for slightly schematic fiction. Nonetheless, Nussbaum's vivid portraits of a wide variety of ILLC residents, some of whom are mentally ill as well as physically challenged, reveal the three-dimensional humanity of people the rest of society is all too willing to neglect and ignore. Well-meaning, well-written and well-plotted, with qualified justice for some of the bad guys and hope for a few of the oppressed: A most appropriate winner of the 2012 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781616203252
  • Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
  • Publication date: 11/12/2013
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 199,657
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.25 (h) x 0.88 (d)

Meet the Author

Susan Nussbaum

Susan Nussbaum’s plays have been widely produced. Her play Mishuganismo is included in the anthology Staring Back: The Disability Experience from the Inside Out. In 2008 she was cited by the Utne Reader as one of “50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World” for her work with girls with disabilities. This is her first novel.

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Posted January 15, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    I received this book from LibraryThing in exchange for a fair an

    I received this book from LibraryThing in exchange for a fair and honest review, which is awesome because this book rocked my socks off and I read it in a day.
    Good Kings Bad Kings by Susan Nussbaum was such an amazing book. I not only thought it was wonderful, but it also won the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaging Fiction.

    Good Kings Bad Kings is a story about people with disabilities, mainly teenagers and children, who find themselves in a "nursing home" for kids with disabilities.

    The novel is told from many perspectives, all connected in some way, and shows the neglect and corruption that can be found at many (but not all, I'm sure!) nursing home facilities. Some of that is based on lack of funding, while other parts are based on disgusting, horrible individuals.

    But the characters are so real and spunky!

    Yessenia is in a wheelchair, physically disabled, but if you cross her, she will totally knock you out.

    Joanne has both a physical disability and a trust fund, but when she decides to work an admin job at the kid nursing home, her life completely changes for the better.

    Ricky is a fully-abled bus driver at the home, but realizes his job is consisting more and more of disciplining the kids, and in ways he doesn't always agree with.

    The LA Review of books said that Good Kings Bad Kings was a "knockout" - and I have to agree 100%.

    Susan Nussbaum realized that most of the novels we know about that include people with disabilities were written by able-bodied people. When she was disabled in an accident, her life changed. And after writing numerous plays, this is her first novel. And wow, what a success it is!

    Good Kings Bad Kings is one of the best books I read in 2013 (even though the review is being published in 2014!).

    Thanks for reading, 

    Rebecca @ Love at First Book

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 28, 2014

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