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good kings bad kingsEvery year you work your way through a pile of new books, hoping to find something fresh to offer your writing students.  Rarely, do you find one that knocks you out of your seat like Susan Nussbaum’s debut novel Good Kings, Bad Kings.

I have to admit that I was a bit skeptical about this one at first. I knew that it was about a group of disabled youth and that it had won the 2012 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction.  I was worried that it would be depressing and/or overly political.

It was neither.  From the first pages, I was absorbed by the main characters, and I found myself reading it through in one sitting. [I apologize to all who may have been ignored during that time.]

The book opens with Yessenia Lopez, who is describing how a smack-down with another wheelchair-bound teen landed her at the infamous ILLC (Illinois Learning and Life Skills Center).  It then moves to a disabled staff member who describes herself as a “crip” working in “a place that’s swarming with other crips”. This is Joanne Madsen, who is a feisty data-entry clerk who will develop a love affair with another (able-bodied) staff member.

We hear from this man, Ricky Hernandez next. His story then leads into the next character’s, and so on, until seven speakers have been introduced, including two who more who are teenage residents and a self-absorbed recruiter whose job it is to fill the beds for the Health Solutions company that runs ILLC for the state.

While there is an underlying message about the ills of such institutions, it is more a story about the growth of the main characters, who all come to some interesting conclusions about their own abilities and the idea of dignity on an individual’s terms.

This is an issue near and dear to author Nussbaum’s heart, as she is a major voice in Chicago’s disability rights movement, and she just so happens to navigate the world from a wheelchair. barbara nussbaum

You might also know her from that city’s theater scene.  She is a successful playwright whose work brings disabled characters to the stage.

Her great skill with voice–one of the truly knock-out features of the novel–was clearly honed in the theater.  Another case of a playwright obtaining success with a novel (see Craig Johnson). I highly recommend that you add Good Kings, Bad Kings to your fiction syllabus as soon as possible.