Kindness for Weakness

Book review by
Joe Applegate, Common Sense Media
Kindness for Weakness Book Poster Image
Gritty story about a boy growing up fast in prison.

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age 14+
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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Life in an upstate New York juvenile detention facility is described in unflinching detail. A young reader will learn exactly what a criminal juvenile sentence, lenient by adult standards, would bring.

Positive Messages

In prison, where kindness is taken for weakness, inner strength turns out to be paramount. James enters juvenile prison skinny and naive. Weight-lifting builds up his muscles, which will help protect him in a fight, but he listens carefully when a counselor tells him that real strength is "when you're a balanced man. When you can think as well and you can use your body."

Positive Role Models & Representations

A high school English teacher, Mr. Pfeffer, sees a promising writer in James and mails him Jack London's Sea Wolf, about a seaman threatened by shipmates. James writes back that the book has taught him "how to be brave" by acknowledging that fear of battle is to be accepted. Pfeffer and a Mr. Eboue, one of the prison counselors, nurture James' self-esteem.


A uniformed guard deliberately breaks a boy's arm. James, the 15-year-old hero, nearly chokes another boy to death. Another boy hangs himself.


Gay and straight sex are referred to often, but no sex act is explicit. 


"F--k-up," "a--hole," "s--t," "bitch," and "p---y" are commonly used.


In detailing character at the beginning of the book, brand names, are suprisingly evident: Big Wheels, NASCAR, Big Mac, Legos, and Matchbox cars.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Fifteen-year-old James is convicted as a juvenile for running crystal meth. "Pot" and "weed" are often referred to. No drug-taking is explicit. 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Kindness for Weakness starkly describes the cruel life inside a boys' prison in upstate New York, as witnessed by the psychologist-author while working in a juvenile "residential center." There's quite a bit of violence (a guard deliberately breaks a boy's arm, a boy nearly chokes another boy to death, a boy hangs himself), and strong language ("f--k-up," "a--hole," "s--t," "bitch," "p---y"). One character is frank about his sexual orientation, and gay and straight sex is referred to but not explicitly described. James is convicted for running crystal meth, and there are frequent references to pot/weed, but no descriptions of drug-taking. Young readers will root for 15-year-old James, who enters the prison skinny and naive and learns to hold his own. But the tone is pessimistic: The author gives none of the characters, including the guards, much chance of self-fulfillment. He concludes, "In the face of violence, showing kindness requires tremendous strength and is often punished severely."

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Teen, 14 years old Written byBetty L. January 2, 2014

Great Book!!!

KINDNESS FOR WEAKNESS is a gripping story of James, a fifteen year old boy who is sent to juvie for running crystal meth. When he is caught delivering, he does... Continue reading

What's the story?

Fifteen-year-old James is abandoned by his parents and his adored older brother, who sets him up to run crystal meth. In boys' prison in upstate New York, James learns to grow up fast, anticipating a life-and-death battle with another prisoner, Antwon. James lifts weights and finds a friend who shows him the ropes, but more important, looks for life lessons in the books that his high school English teacher sends him. James is the only character who grows in self-esteem, but the author withholds sentimental optimism about James' future.

Is it any good?

Shawn Goodman, a school psychologist who worked in a juvenile "residential center," deserves credit for writing a blunt account of life within it in KINDNESS FOR WEAKNESS. The unappealing routines, the despicable talk, the imminent and explosive violence are all here, and so is the fact that almost no one stands a good chance of self-fulfillment. This worthy author writes in the postscript, "... instead of apologizing for the darkness of this story, I will simply thank you for reading, and thinking, and feeling."

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about male role models. Where does a boy who doesn't know his father turn for guidance into manhood?

  • Mr. Pike, one of the prison guards, has been trying for a long time to earn his pilot's license. Will he make it? Why would the author include that detail?

  • If you knew you had to fight for your life, how would you prepare?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love coming-of-age stories

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