Jemma Shaw is a British girl aged 14. She has cerebral palsy affecting all four limbs and her speech. Jemma is devoid of communication capability. She cannot speak and her hands are too seriously affected to use sign language. So she exists incommunicado.
Jemma is a fulltime user of a manual wheelchair. The condition of her arms makes it necessary for Jemma to have someone pushing her chair. Controlling it herself is beyond her. Jemma has lived with her foster parents since the age of two, along with Finn (aged six and autistic) and nine year old Olivia. Olivia displays extremely challenging behaviour. She is now on her sixth foster home.
Jemma was born a twin and yearns to meet her non-disabled sister.
Jemma also has a fulltime resident carer named Sarah. Jemma adores Sarah. Sarah treats Jemma in ways that suit her age. Sarah has a boyfriend named Dan. Everyone likes Dan – everyone except Jemma.
Just before the story begins, a boy from the neighbourhood named Ryan Blake has been murdered. The killer has not been caught. How will this nexus of individuals be explored? What is Jemma’s role as the narrative unfolds?
Joelson takes a worthy place alongside Sharon M. Draper in giving a presence on stage to disabled young people. Her depiction of disability is for the most part convincing. She describes Jemma’s speechless frustration in a realistic manner. And the daily details of a disabled person’s life are accurately reported. Research has been done.
There are however some issues. Her foster parents of course know that Jemma cannot speak or use hand signals. Yet their complete inability to understand anything about her baffles this reviewer, whose experience with aphasic children suggests there is always much available to be learned about their thoughts and feelings. Body language can be powerfully expressive. To make a more practical point, Jemma’s solitary carer Sarah seems to cope with all Jemma’s needs without much support, taking few days off. In the real world fulltime carers need backup.
Now to a more fundamental point. Are there certain things that should not be said in a book for young readers? At one point Dan murmurs to Jemma that in her situation he would take his own life. He volunteers to help arrange her suicide. This episode hovers on the edge of the impermissible. It is a courageous narrative stroke. But it might give young readers the dangerous notion that disabled people’s lives are seen as valueless when their experience does not equip them to contest the idea.