When She Was Good

Book review by
Ellen Dendy, Common Sense Media
When She Was Good Book Poster Image
Teen survives abuse by mentally ill older sister.

Parents say

age 14+
Based on 1 review

Kids say

age 13+
Based on 3 reviews

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A lot or a little?

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

Positive Messages

An unstable teenager is mentally and physically abusive to her younger sister, but her actions are not condoned. This character also steals money, drinks a beer, curses, and convinces her younger sister to run away from home. To survive her troubled family life, the younger sister turns to sex as a means of escape but eventually realizes it's not worth it and stops. Despite terrible odds, the younger sister relies on her inner strength (and her hope for a better future) in order to survive.


A teen is physically and emotionally abused by her unstable older sister. While the younger sister's flashbacks of abuse are not overly graphic, they're quite powerful because she describes the abuse in a stark, "just the facts" manner. Non-graphic descriptions of an alcoholic husband beating his wife.


Teen sex is implied but not described in detail. Two girls (best friends) kiss and fondle each other's breasts in a very brief scene.


Variations on curse words: "frucking," "faresehole," and "sheeeeet." These words are used outright: "damn," "bitch," "hell," "crap," "screw," "ass," "piss."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

A teenager drinks a beer; references to an alcoholic father.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that this story alludes to a young teen girl engaging in sexual activity with boys, and she also has a more innocent sexual encounter with a girl. An older sister mentally and physically abuses her sibling, but while the scenes are tense, most are brief and there are no graphic descriptions. There is also mention of a teen drinking beer and an alcoholic father abusing his wife. Use of curse words is minimal, and the worst words are twisted in form (such as "frucking"). The main character suffers the trauma of losing her mother at a young age and witnessing her older sister's sudden death.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written bycaitlin89 September 17, 2009

Quite Good!

I read this book when I was 14 and I loved it! I wouldn't recommend it to anyone under 14!
Teen, 13 years old Written byDianamoya January 12, 2017

I liked it

I really enjoyed this book. The main reason I found it interesting was that I could relate to it in ways. It was was also interesting viewing life through Em... Continue reading
Teen, 14 years old Written byMiJus0 January 27, 2011

Perfect for younger childen, childish for teenagers.

It was ok. I wouldn't recommend it as a favorite book.

What's the story?

When her older sister Pamela dies from a stroke, Em Thurkill finds herself completely alone in the world. Not that life hasn't already been tough for the 18-year-old. Em has endured years of mental and physical abuse from Pamela, their frail mother died years earlier and -- thanks to Pamela -- she has no idea where her father and stepmother are or if they're even still alive.

\ \ After spending the last few years taking care of Pamela (a promise she made to her beloved mother), Em must now find the strength to create a \"normal\" life for herself -- something she's never known and isn't quite sure how to approach.

Is it any good?

Mazer sucks us into the story quickly and never lets us go until the very end. She employs first-person narrative to perfection by exposing Em's thoughts, which swing from memories of the past to her present situation and are occasionally shattered by the angry voice of a third party -- Em's dead sister Pamela. Flashbacks switch seamlessly to the present and back again as Em's life slowly unfolds, and each page seems to answer one question while forming a new one. We want and need to read on so we can find out what went on back then, and what's going on now.

This story is raw and only rarely sentimental -- just what we'd expect from a guarded teen who has battled tough odds her entire life. The softest aspect of the story is Em's heartbreaking fixation on mother figures -- from Oprah to perfect strangers, Em fervently tries to fill a void. Yet Mazer's bare prose doesn't inhibit her ability to paint a rich portrait of Em's character -- in the end, we feel as if we know her well enough to truly care about her and to root for her in her quest to reach a happier place.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about Em's troubled family life. Why do you think Em ran away from home with her abusive sister Pamela? How was Em able to survive such awful circumstances?

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