As you can probably tell by now, I’m a big fan of middle-grade and YA novels that deal with social issues, emotional conflicts, sticky situations. When done right, these books tell an engaging story while presenting possible solutions to actual real-world problems. For better or for worse, reading this type of material helps kids feel less alone.
At the beginning of the Lynda Mullaly Hunt’s debut novel One for the Murphys, 12-year-old Carley Connors’s circumstances look dire. She wakes up in the hospital after being attacked by her stepfather. Her mother’s beating was so severe that she wound up in intensive care. In order to give her mother time to heal, Carley’s placed in foster care against her will.
Thankfully, the Murphys—Carley’s new family—are a gentle lot. Mr. Murphy, a Red Sox fan and fireman, isn’t around much, but is amiable and jovial when he makes an appearance. The couples’ two boys—Michael Eric and Adam—take to Carley immediately and follow her around like adoring younger siblings. The older boy Daniel is jealous of the attention his new “sister” receives, but even his fits of acting out are on par with what one might expect. And Mrs. Murphy? She’s practically a saint.
As Carley struggles to adjust to her new environment, Mrs. Murphy seems always one step ahead. She takes Carley on her first shopping spree, buying her brightly-colored clothes for school. She cooks delicious and healthy dishes, bringing her family together at nearly every meal. When possible, she gives Carley pep talks about everything from making new friends, crying openly, and standing up for what’s right. In short, Mrs. Murphy is the epitome of what Carley needs—and the exact opposite of Carley’s real mother.
But not everything is idealistic and peachy in Carley’s new life. No matter how hard she tries, she can’t sort out her feelings. One minute, she’s throwing tantrums, furious at Mrs. Murphy for trying so hard; the next minute, she wants nothing more than to be a part of the Murphy family permanently. Worst of all, she’s still trying to figure out where her real mother—the one who stayed married to an abusive man—fits into her life. Is there room in Carley’s heart for not one mom, but two?
Mullaly Hunt walks a delicate line in her approach to writing about foster care. Yes, some of the characters’ interactions might feel a bit too-good-to-be-true to kids placed in unloving foster homes or to those who have had the unfortunate experience of being shuffled around and denied the stability a new set of parents could provide. But that doesn’t negate the book’s power. Nor does it mean Mullaly Hunt glosses over the complexity of the situation or that Carley doesn’t face her fair share of problems and opportunities for growth. It just means Mullaly Hunt chooses to highlight what’s possible (and potentially positive) in an unfortunate but all-too-common situation. Kids like Carley need all the hope they can get.
Like most bookworms, Alexis Burling has loved reading since she could crawl. She has worked in the publishing industry for over a decade and has reviewed both children's and adult books for prominent media outlets such as teenreads.com, Publishers Weekly, and the Washington Post.
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