INVISIBLE CHILD

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Dasani Coates grew up in a family so poor, her stepfather once pawned his gold teeth to get by until their welfare benefits arrived. In this moving but occasionally flat narrative, Elliott follows Dasani for eight years, beginning in 2012 when she was 11 years old and living in a one-room, rodent-infested apartment in a New York City homeless shelter with nine others: her mother, stepfather, and seven siblings. Dasani is a “parentified child”—a de facto mother to the younger ones—as her overwhelmed and unemployed elders fight hunger, evictions, and the dread that a child protection agency will split up the family. Sometimes Dasani catches a break—most notably, when she earned a spot at the free Milton Hershey boarding school in Pennsylvania, where she excelled at first. But she acted out and was expelled when—after devastating setbacks for her family—her worst fears materialized: Her parents temporarily lost custody of their children, who were sent to three separate foster homes. The villains in this catastrophe include alarmingly inadequate legal and child-protective services—among them a foster care agency that placed two of Dasani’s sisters in a violent household. Elliott’s account of the tumult resembles a series of stitched-together newspaper articles; it’s heroically researched but tends to give each incident a similar emotional weight, whether involving a murder or a harmless gender-reveal party. The book is at least 100 pages too long, and its generally benign picture of Hershey doesn’t mention a well-known sexual abuse scandal there. A more selective chronicle might have given this important book a better chance to find the audience its urgent message deserves.

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