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Virginia Castleman
A Jail with Feathers
Anna Olson, almost thirteen, hides something terrible that happened to her. That traumatic experience has stripped her of the ability to talk, and she now faces nightmarish fears. Torn from her sister, she must survive forty days in a residential treatment center with nothing but her demons to keep her company. With much difficulty, Anna begins to realize that she can and must face the reality of her life. She finds strength in the words of a dead poet, an amputee, an arsonist, a thief, and a horse. Each of them, in their own strange ways, leads her to discover herself. Still, demons linger. Can Anna overcome the wicked ways of Terrible Ted, deal with reality, and not get lost in the safety of her own head? Faced with rejection, fear, disillusionment, and ultimately hope, the final choice is up to Anna.
Castleman returns to the harrowing world of Anna and Sara Olson, two sisters from her previous books (Strays and Sara Lost and Found) who are placed in foster care due to their mother’s disappearance and father’s incarceration. Anna, just 12 years old, is tortured by the trauma she experienced at the hands of a prior foster father, who she calls “Terrible Ted,” and now relies on 10-year-old Sara to communicate for her. When the courts decide Anna would best be served by a stint in residential treatment, she’s dropped off at a center without her sister and must learn to survive on her own.

Castleman’s portrayal of Anna’s trauma response is eye-opening—and distressing to read in places. Sentenced to “forty-or-so” days in treatment, Anna can’t quite comprehend why she’s suddenly alone, and her difficulties processing Terrible Ted’s abuse eat at her insides. Her stay is complicated by her habit of biting others “when I can’t get them to leave me alone” and wetting the bed—all normal behaviors, given her trauma history, but her struggles to speak keep that key information locked away. To confuse matters further, the treatment center staff and fellow residents come and go, making it challenging for Anna to form any real attachments.

As Anna fights for healing, she discovers Emily Dickinson’s poems and gains some temporary relief through therapeutic chanting. Her voice is still fettered, and her fear of Terrible Ted’s retaliation should she disclose the truth is palpable, but with the help of a few compassionate staff members, including Bart, who likens Anna to “a tiny flower push[ing] up through the cracks in the sidewalk,” and a therapy horse named Sapphire, Anna slowly finds her voice. Best read as a sequel to Castleman’s previous two books, this gut-wrenching story will leave readers questioning the mental health care and foster system.

Takeaway: A gut-wrenching story of trauma in the foster care system.

Comparable Titles: Holly Goldberg Sloan’s The Elephant in the Room, Tiffany D. Jackson’s Monday’s Not Coming.

Production grades
Cover: A-
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: NA
Editing: A-
Marketing copy: A