Written by: J. Albert Mann
Cover Art by: Design: Rebecca Syracuse; Illustration: Sarah Maxwell-Folio Art
For ages: YA (14 years and up)
Topics Covered: Historical Fiction, LGBTQ, Growing Up, Mental Health, Disability, Own Voices, Interracial Love, Family, Friendship, Institutionalized Lives, Courage, Bravery, Love.
This book is incredible. I truly hope this book review does it justice, I couldn’t put it down. We were given the opportunity to read the book before it’s released on 3/17 and I am so appreciative! Four young girls (Rose, Alice Maxine, and London) are all institutionalized at the Massachusetts School for the Feeble-Minded, also known as the Fernald School. Set in 1928, readers get a look inside the dismal and regimented existence that these girls as well as the rest of the inmates are subjected to. The book is told in the four voices of the girls mentioned above, and the reader learns the schedule of the “school” and why they were abandoned there. Using the language of the day, you can anticipate outdated terms for Down syndrome as well as learn about the eugenics movement that drove the incessant testing and measuring of intelligence leading to categories that we no longer use (but that many still use as ableist insults today).
I don’t want to give away too much, but The Degenerates is a slow burn, and made my little gay heart go pitter patter all the way until the last pages. It’s a fantastic historically accurate book, and I’ve already told several people how much they need to read it!
In an extensive note in the back, we learn more about the author and how she developed the book from actual records found from the Fernald School, which was finally closed in 2014. We coincidentally live very near the Fernald, so this book was of particular interest to us! Everything in the book that a doctor or nurse says to a character was pulled from hospital records, as well as the characters names and their conditions. The author herself is disabled, giving a personal voice to the probability that she herself would have been committed to an institution such as this one should she have been born last century. Honestly, we probably would have been committed too, due to the criminalization of queer people in addition to the other disabled and marginalized citizens. This adds another layer to reading the book and the heinous “care” that these individuals committed for life were given.
The Degenerates will be released on March 17th! This book was sent to us by Simon & Schuster, but all opinions are our own. This is a YA book everyone should devote a few hours to reading!
About the Author & the Cover Artist:
J. Albert Mann is the author of six novels for children, with S&S Atheneum Books for Young Readers set to publish her next work of historical fiction about the Eugenics Movement and the rise of institutionalism in the United States. She is also the author of short stories and poems for children featured in Highlights for Children, where she won the Highlights Fiction Award, as well as the Highlights Editors’ Choice Award. She has an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts in Writing for Children and Young Adults, and is the Director of the WNDB Internship Grant Committee.
Sarah Maxwell is an American illustrator based in London. She was born and raised in Austin, Texas, only to then travel to Paris for studies. Having lived there for over 5 years, she has made the move to travel across the pond to the UK to start a new chapter of her life.
Her work ranges from fashion illustration to animated GIFs and comics. The best way to describe her work is summed up in 4 key words: nostalgia, tenderness, femininity, and 80’s electronic music.
Rebecca Syracuse is a graphic designer and illustrator, highly experienced in children’s publishing and product design.