REVIEW: The School for Dangerous Girls by Eliot Schreffer
Dear Mr. Schreffer,
I really wanted to love this book. Teen girls left behind or cast out by society is a topic that’s near and dear to my heart, and one that I like to read about. But while your novel delivered on explorations of this theme, I’m afraid the storyline didn’t work quite as well.
Angela Cardenas is a teenager who’s been given one last chance. Sent to Hidden Oak School for Girls after the untimely death of her grandfather, she finds herself permanently stripped of her luggage and thrown into a prison-like environment. Experiencing treatment at the hands of the faculty that’s definitely not on the up and up (e.g. locked in freezers, physical abuse), Angela makes it her mission to find out the secrets of Hidden Oak and to escape.
That’s easier said than done. All contact to the outside world is heavily controlled and filtered. The faculty has made it so that the parents think their daughters are beyond help and don’t believe a word they say even if they do manage to get an unsupervised phone call to them.
The girls are initially exposed to a battery of psychological tests designed to separate out those girls who can be redeemed from those who are lost causes. The thing is many of these tests aren’t interviews or therapy sessions. In fact, most of them aren’t. Instead they’re exercises tailored to manipulate the girls into forming groups against each other, whether by peer pressure or unequal divisions of power.
The results are chilling. In many instances, it seems the only options are to be mindless sheep who obey the rules handed down by society or to be outcasts deemed unworthy of saving or assimilation into the mainstream. It’s a bitter commentary on our society and its treatment of girls, as seen through the lens of a school whose purpose is to reform them into something more acceptable.
Throughout the novel, we see that Angela isn’t really a bad girl despite her questionable reputation. She’s the result of an upbringing where her parents were never home and to make up for their absence and lack of attention, gave her lots of money and material objects. Of course, instead of buying Angela’s love, this only earned her contempt. The more her parents strive to mold her into their idea of the perfect Mexican-American rich socialite, the more she rebels. To replace the love she never got from her parents, Angela sought out the company of older guys and put up with bad treatment from them in order to get the scraps of attention they occasionally gave her. I’m sure we’ve all known someone like that.
But while some of the girls at Hidden Oak are violent and cruel, some don’t even belong there. Angela’s roommate, Carmen, was sent there by her parents because they disapproved of her close relationship with another girl. (In other words, her parents feared their daughter was a lesbian and hoped to “cure” her.)
Angela’s refusal to buy into Hidden Oak’s ideology provided the most compelling part of the book. This is made even more apparent when she passes muster and is admitted into the gold thread: those girls who are considered worthy of redemption. Because Angela was the last one to be admitted, she retains the most teeth of the “good” girls at Hidden Oak. It’s those rough edges that make her interesting to read about.
Where the book falters is in the storyline in which Angela tries to get Hidden Oak shut down. Compared to the rest of the book, it feels underdeveloped. I also wished we could have seen more interaction between Angela and Harrison. I found it refreshing to see a girl who’s always been too trusting of guys turn the tables and finally say no to a guy who’s an acknowledged player. I wanted to see more scenes like that conversation on the stairs where Harrison, who’s used to having the boy-deprived girls of Hidden Oak jump all over him, is at a loss with Angela. In a book about “dangerous” girls, it would have been nice to see more of a teen girl not making herself weaker to get a boy’s attention.
As for assigning a grade, that’s a tough one. I loved Angela’s first person voice:
I’ve been called many things in my life.
As a little girl, slapping my doll against the bus seat: hyper.
By my grandparents, when I stuck my hand in the pitcher of milk at a wedding to make sure it was cold: a troublemaker.
In elementary school, I was headstrong.
In middle school, a puta.
Freshman year, I was called (by an English teacher, obviously) a malcontent.
All of these were true at the time. And I didn’t mind them much, since they were the opposite of boring.
But once I arrived at Hidden Oak, I became more. I was a deviant, a criminal, an arsonist, a murderer. Throughout it all, one word always stayed attached to me. I stopped thinking about what it meant; it was me, as undeniable my name.
And I loved seeing how the sorts of expectations placed on teen girls by society can both damage them and smooth away those traits that we’d otherwise value in boys. But I ultimately read for plots and in this, the ending falls apart. C+
This book can be purchased in hardcover from Amazon. No ebook format. Scholastic apparently doesn’t believe in the e format.