Hurt You ~ By Marie Myung-Ok Lee
(Blackstone Publishing, Houston, 2023, ISBN #979-2-0007-5809-8)
Review by Joanne Rhim Lee (Summer 2023)
Georgia Kim and her family have just moved from the big city to the suburbs in hopes of finding better schools for her and her older brother Leo. Changing schools in the middle of high school would be hard on anyone, but Georgia is up for the challenge.
This may seem like a run-of-the-mill young adult (YA) fiction plot, but from the opening pages of Marie Myung-Ok Lee’s Hurt You, it is clear that Georgia is tackling tougher issues than the average teenager. Though her father has big dreams for her to attend an Ivy League college and follow in his footsteps of becoming a doctor, the larger reason that the family has moved to this seemingly idyllic suburb is so that Leo can receive better services for his severe neurological disability.
Leo is almost an adult, but he is non-verbal and needs help with basic skills such as grooming and eating. Georgia, the younger sibling by two years, has been at his side her entire life, helping him navigate the world around him. While her parents worry about the heavy burden this is on her, and her peers comment that she is a saint for caring for him, Georgia doesn’t see it that way. She loves Leo more than anyone, and besides, this just what siblings do for each other.
Lee’s first and perhaps best-known YA novel, Finding My Voice, initially published in 1992 and reissued in 2021, clearly demonstrated this author’s gift for understanding teens and capturing the unique challenges that Asian Americans face in majority white schools.
The author also has a personal journey related to the story of Hurt You — she has written several articles over the years of parenting her son, who she refers to as J. J lives with autism. He seldom spoke during childhood, and was diagnosed as having a very low intellectual ability. The author shows compassion for how neuro-atypical people are perceived in the world, and her viewpoint is reflected in the character of Georgia. In recent years, the professionals’ predictions about J have been proven false; in his early 20s, he started speaking, learning to skateboard, and writing enthusiastically on his Ipad.
In the story, Georgia is described as a good student, but as the new kid, she finds it difficult to make friends at first. Who will she sit with at lunch and on the bus ride home? In unwinding the story of Hurt You, Lee adds another layer to Georgia’s tale, modeling her story on John Steinbeck’s classic Of Mice and Men. Part of Leo’s genetic condition is that he is a very large kid, and not aware of his unusual strength and the space that he takes up. He gets easily excited and irritated when his regular schedule is disrupted, and often has meltdowns in public places.
Leo’s parents do their best to shelter Leo and avoid putting him in any potentially disruptive situations, but Georgia is more courageous in introducing him to new environments, as she somehow knows how to keep him calm and happy. Leo’s favorite thing in the world is furry baby bunnies, and Georgia knows that deep inside, he is soft and gentle as well.
Of course, not everyone is as patient and understanding as Georgia. There’s Curley, the popular kid and school bully who taunts Leo and the other special ed kids. There are also strangers in stores who become exasperated when Leo suddenly stops moving and blocks the aisles. He often endures anger from strangers, and is called demeaning names.
In addition to the discrimination Leo faces for his disability, the Kim family also faces racism in their new suburban community, receiving comments about “these foreigners” and “these immigrants” who have infiltrated their neighborhoods. Likewise, Georgia’s first new friend Calvin, a fellow newcomer to Sunnyvale, faces both microaggressions and macroaggressions because he’s the only Black kid around.
Calvin and Georgia begin attending a hagwon, an after-school study program run by a local Korean American family, and begin to build their own community with the kids there. At the hagwon, Leo is not only welcomed, but embraced. Where some might see only Leo’s weaknesses and deficiencies, their new friends see his unique strengths and talents.
Georgia and her parents face questions about Leo’s impending adulthood, there is a great deal of hope, but also pain, which is expressed with understanding by the author. Though John Steinbeck wrote his classic book in the 1930s, the themes from Of Mice and Men still resonate today, almost a century later, in this modern-day parallel.
With sensitivity and optimism, the author has produced another YA novel that contains important life lessons for younger and older adults; that differently-abled individuals face the same harsh world as they transition into adult life, except with fewer tools and less armor than others. Accommodating all abilities and all gifts into society is a challenge the whole society needs to face.
Joanne Rhim Lee has written for KQ for the past twenty years, and is a huge fan! Originally from Chicago, she has lived in St. Paul for the past 25 years with her husband and three children. She currently teaches History at Century College, and is a graduate of Carleton College and Stanford University.