Charlene is a 15-year-old Black girl living in foster care. She loves her younger sister Kandi, who she’s not seen for two years, and she loves knitting. The craft relaxes her and keeps her grounded as her world changes around her over and over again. But her foster mum’s adult son torments her by destroying the gift she’s knitting for her sister, and before she knows it she has retaliated with her knitting needle.
Needle is a gripping and revealing young adult novel, by Riverside favourite Patrice Lawrence. I could absolutely see how Charlene got into the situations in the story, and why she reacted as she did. While easy to read, with a compelling narrative, Needle raises critical issues around the criminalisation of young people, about childhood trauma, and about serious failings in our care and policing systems.
Charlene is reflective and realistic on her lack of control over her own life: “Annie [her foster mother] agrees that me and Kandi should see each other, but she says we can’t always control the world. Sometimes we just have to stand back and work out how to pull it back into a shape that’s good for us. That’s easier for people like Annie than me. She doesn’t have folks always shaping her world for her, then expecting her to smile and say it fits”.
The publisher has given three words on the book to describe the content – remorse, foster care, and justice. They could easily have added policing, bereavement and trauma. The brilliant cover made me want to read the book, not least the intriguing ‘sorrynotsorry’ motif. Whether and when to apologise comes to be of critical importance throughout the story. Perhaps you feel remorse or, conversely, don’t feel you’ve anything to be sorry for but those with power over you are urging you to play the game.
It’s relevant that Needle is dedicated to someone that the author describes as “bringing people together to change this”. I hope that that this change can happen, and also that some of Lawrence’s readers will find themselves and their experiences here: it is vital that we can find our lives in books sometimes.
Attending the launch for Needle, I found out that it was inspired by Lawrence’s work with the Howard League for Penal Reform. This would help explain just how believable the sections in the police station are. On the excellent panel at the launch, several young people who had been in care generously shared their experiences, and all said that they had found the book very relatable. I first came across the book when it was recommended by Charlie at the excellent Hastings Bookshop.
What stuck with me after reading Needle was the on and off role of so many adults in Charlene’s life. Some listen, some don’t. Some seem to understand, but more don’t (or won’t, or can’t). A few are permanent though limited in what they can do to help, like Charlene’s auntie, or hostile, like Kandi’s dad. Charlene herself is a constant, remaining funny and incisive throughout, even as she is clearly still a kid: “Sometimes I think my name is really Confidential instead of Charlene, because I hear that word so much. Everything I say is supposed to be confidential, but somehow everyone still seems to know my business”. In the end the questions of saying sorry, feeling remorse, playing the game and being true to yourself remain complex for Charlene. Outstanding.