Burning by Danielle Rollins is about Angela Davis, a teen who’s been in Brunesfield Correctional Facility (juvenile hall) for two years of her young life. To summarize Brunesfield, “The wolves out there aren’t any worse than the wolves in here.” Angela is a few months away from being released when a new inmate, a little girl named Jessica, arrives to the facility. Angela quickly discovers that the innocent-looking child has the power to heat up the air around her and set fires with her mind, and nothing is the same again.
This book is a joy to read for the most part. The setting is appropriately chilling and believable, the characters are fleshed-out, and the plot kept the pages turning. I would recommend it exactly because the story of girls in juvie is so rarely told, and even the minor inmates garner the reader’s empathy. However, the second half of the book is when the writing starts to get questionable at best.
The recurring theme throughout the book, “monsters are more interesting than people,” doesn’t exactly fit with the rest of its message. It’s as if the writer is equating a cast of juvie girls (many of which are girls of color) to bedtime story beasts. Throughout the book, time is spent detailing the nature of the other girls, whether they catch mice, spend time studying science, or are calmed by M&M’s. Ellen, Aaliyah, Bea, and the rest are described as any other people outside of juvie. The love interest guard, Ben Mateo, even points out that it’s easy to think of the highest-security Segregation Block girls as just crazy people if you don’t take the time to learn their names.
But the ending seems to completely subvert its message of humanization; mostly every girl who isn’t one of the main four is doomed to “off-screen” deaths, whether it’s from an exploding, fiery building or being carted off to be used in inhumane experiments. They are manipulated into the hands of the antagonist and get no chance of redemption, or even life. Angela’s two friends escape, but she’s so consumed with anger at Jessica and the others’ deaths that she apparently doesn’t pay any mind to her friends or her little brother, Charlie, who was her entire reason for escaping from Brunesfield in the first place. The actions of teens need not be rational, but that was a head-scratcher if I’ve ever read one.
Monsters are more interesting than people; I agree. However, repeat after me: criminal children are and always will be people, no matter what they’ve done to be incarcerated. No soulless creature will ever compare to real human beings.