Stone Girl, Eleni Hale, Penguin YA, 2018


A heartbreaking novel of raw survival and hope, and the children society likes to forget. A stunning and unforgettable debut YA novel for mature readers.

An unspeakable event changes everything for Sophie. No more Mum, school or bed of her own. She’s made a ward of the state and grows up in a volatile world where kids make their own rules, adults don’t count and the only constant is change.

Until one day she meets Gwen, Matty and Spiral. Spiral is the most furious, beautiful boy Sophie has ever known. And as their bond tightens she finally begins to confront what happened in her past.

I’m at the police station. There’s blood splattered across my face and clothes. In this tiny room with walls the colour of winter sky I hug a black backpack full of treasures. Only one thing is certain . . . no one can ever forgive me for what I’ve done.

Like many Australian kids of the 1980s and 1990s, I was an avid watcher of the soap opera, Home and Away. I wasn’t allowed to watch it for a long time, so I used to sneakily tune in at my friend’s house (who also, coincidentally, lived in a caravan park, just like the main family in the show). When I was finally permitted to watch it at home, I raced to finish my homework every day, so I didn’t miss a minute.

And (embarrassingly), when I was about to go under anaesthetic to have my appendix out, at age thirteen, apparently my last two thoughts were, “Will you get me know if Andre Agassi wins the tennis”, and “Will I be home in time for Home and Away?”

Narrator: She was not at home in time for Home and Away.

I was in love with the characters on the show, particularly the fierce, bohemian Angel (played by Melissa George pre-French-bulldog). But the character I most identified with was Sally. Sally was shy and imaginative and tomboyish – just like me.

She was also a foster child.

Somehow, I managed to gloss over Sally’s tragic backstory – full of alcoholism and domestic violence – and focussed on how great her life was, now, with her big, vibrant family and her fun and eventful life in the caravan park.

I thought that this was what being a foster kid must be like.

As of June 2017, there were nearly forty-eight thousand Australian children living in foster care.

Not all of them have stories like Sally’s.

Sophie is one of those children.

Sophie is a child whose formative years have been a sequence of progressively tragic events, marked by neglect and abuse. Like many children living lives like these, she is old beyond her years and feels a strong sense of responsibility for her mother; acting in a maternal role during the years when she should be receiving the most dedicated parenting. She feels she needs to look after her mother and is incapable of seeing the deep flaws in her character.

When she dies, Sophie believes, fervently, that it is her fault.

Such is the life for many children of addicts. The parent often places unreasonably adult demands on their child, and the child feels deeply ashamed when they are unable to live up to these expectations. Sophie’s story is this narrative taken to the extreme.

After Sophie’s mother’s death, the grief-stricken, shame-consumed child is pushed into the volatile world of group homes and fostering. There are some good adults around her, but they are unable to give her the love and care she truly craves – the strictures and protocols of their jobs prevent it. She is desperate to find a new parent and a new family and, because of this, finds herself associating with people who don’t have her best interests at heart, plunging her even deeper into a world of trauma and misery.

Sophie’s story is not a happy one – this is not a happy book – but it is a realistic one; so brutal at times it feels like a punch to the stomach. And this, I believe, is why it is an important book. Sophie’s story might seem, at times, unbelievably tragic and sad, but the reality is that we need to believe it. Because, all around our “lucky country”, young people are living through traumas similar and even more dire and profound.

I cried many times during this book, and I held on to the rare moments of light and hope as if they were fireflies and I was holding a jar with no lid. I knew that each happy moment would soon escape me and I’d soon be once more in the dark. But I also felt a fire inside me igniting – a deep desire to learn more about children living like Sophie; a desire to help. I believe that this is the author’s intention and she has been masterful in executing it.

I also thought more about Sally Fletcher – about how her seemingly idyllic foster experience was sparked and marred by tragedy that was often glossed over in the show. There is no benefit to glossing over horrors like the one Sally witnessed; the one Sophie lived. There is no benefit in making these horrors seem more cheerful than they truly are. We can’t transform unacceptable situations if we are not brave enough to face reality, no matter how much it hurts our hearts.

We need books like these, to punch us in the stomach and spark the fire within, if things can even change.

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