Cover of Kindness for Weakness. Photo of the back of a young man's head

About the Book

Title: Kindness for Weakness
Published: 2013

Cover Story: Why Even Bother?
Drinking Buddy:
Break Out the Pruno
MPAA Rating:
R (violence, sexuality, drug use)
Talky Talk:
Bonus Factors:
Diversity (unfortunately), LGBTQ
Bromance Status:
When You Say Bromance…

Cover Story: Why Even Bother?

Seriously. Now we’re not even doing the huge teen faces, but the back of a teen’s head. Hell, I can’t even tell if that’s a teen. Is he morose because his girlfriend left him? Worried about the future? On the run? Hell if I know. Cover designers aren’t even trying anymore.

The Deal:

Fifteen-year-old James has a shitty home life (how many YA reviews start off with that sentence?). He idolizes Louis, his body-building older brother and wants to help him with his business. His ‘business’ of ‘delivering’ ‘goods’ to his ‘customers.’

On his second day on the job, James is arrested with several large packages of meth and thousands of dollars in cash. When Louis sees what’s going down, he pulls a Sir Robin and leaves James to his fate. While the cops realize James is just a patsy, he refuses to name names, and ends up sentenced to a year in the roughest juvie facility in the state.

James is not cut out for prison. While he’s not a great kid, he’s not a bad kid either. He reads, he has dreams, he wants a better life. So how is he supposed to survive in a world where only strength is respected, and kindness is often mistaken for weakness?

Still, he does manage to make friends. Tony, the tough guy who’s about to get out. Freddie, the shoplifting clothes horse. Mr. Sampson and Mr. Eboue, the guards who actually see something in the kids.

But this is prison. There are bullies, cruel guards, and a system that doesn’t care. Can James survive his twelve months in this hell?

Drinking Buddy: Break Out the Pruno

Two pints of beer cheersing

(pruno is alcohol they make out of ketchup and stuff in prisons)

James is a likeable guy who is in way, way over his head. The only guidance in his life comes from his idiot brother, and Mr. Pfeffer, his kindly English teacher who is not allowed to visit. James now must make some difficult decisions: does he stand up to a prison bully and risk getting in trouble, or toe the line and risk getting beaten? Does he befriend Freddie, whom the thuggish guards hate? Does he join a gang for protection? And how closely do you follow the prison code of silence?

James will do a lot of growing up this year. Maybe he’ll finally decide what he wants out of life, which sure as hell isn’t this.

MPAA Rating: R (violence, sexuality, drug use)

In James’s new world, people (and this includes most of the guards) respect only one thing: brute strength. Any sign of weakness, any sign of being submissive, and you’re dead. Only the strong survive here. Life in the prison is brutish and cruel.

And yet, there’s beauty there too. When James earns extra privileges, he asks Mr. Sampson, the guard, to teach him weightlifting. Mr. Pfeffer has not forgotten about his old student (unlike his brother) and sends frequent letters.

But James also is at the mercy of the sadistic guards, gangs, and bureaucrats who hold absolute sway over James’s fate. It’s entirely possible he won’t survive this hitch.

Talky Talk: Hopelessness

Even though James comes to realize what a jackass his brother is, he never blames him for his incarceration, or tries to excuse what he did. But like most of his fellow inmates, James doesn’t have a lot to hope for. Once he gets out, will he just go back to his alcoholic mother and her junkie live-in boyfriend?

Most of the prisoners have utterly given up hope. It’s not a question of if they’ll come back to jail, but when. Privileges are hard won and easily lost. The guards take pleasure in punishing kids for minor infractions, and beating them if they protest. After all, who’s going to believe a claim of brutality from a junior criminal? No one is escaping to Mexico via the sewer system in this novel.

This book is such a downer that Goodman actually apologizes for this in the author’s note. Unfortunately, a lot of young readers will be able to relate to this sort of life.

Bonus Factor: Diversity (Unfortunately)

Faces of all different races, ethnicities and genders.

Well, we were complaining about a lack of diversity in YA, weren’t we? While this book does do a good job of reflecting the broad racial spectrum of the US penal system, it’s kind of a bummer.

Still, this was actually one of the more colorblind YA books I’ve read. I honestly had no idea what James’s race was until Freddie refers to him as ‘white brother’ around page fifty. And race is not the only diverse thing about the prisoners. There are the urban gang bangers, the angry young poor kids, the addicts, the good kids, the head cases who belong in a mental facility, and everyone else that slipped through the system.

But they all do have one thing in common: they’re poor. Rich kids don’t go to places like this, even if they’re criminals.

Bonus Factor:LGBTQ

Pride flag being waved in a parade

Freddie, the kid who was busted for stealing an expensive suit, is more or less openly homosexual. He’s also the first friend James makes in jail. While Freddie’s sexuality is pretty much a non issue with James, it’s not so with some of the other inmates. A lot of them do not like gays, and if James keeps hanging around with him, then that’s going to paint him pink. Worse, some of the guards have it out for Freddie because of his sexual orientation, and have already started making cracks about him and James.

So what’s friendship worth in a place where kindness counts for jack? James has to decide whether to stand up for a buddy or to just do his own time.

Bromance Status: When You Say Bromance…

While I never want to experience this book again, but I’ll never forget the lessons I learned. I won’t go back. You can’t make me.

FTC Full Disclosure: Delacorte sent me a free copy of this book, but neglected to include a file or any cash.

Brian wrote his first YA novel when he was down and out in Mexico. He now lives in Missouri with his wonderful wife and daughter. He divides his time between writing and working as a school librarian. Brian still misses the preachy YA books of the eighties.