July 27, 2011 at 04:00 AM EDT

”Come on, little man, your mommy’s traveling. I want you to hold her hand,” the doctor says to terrified 9-year-old Abdul as he stands at his mother’s deathbed. It’s a heartrending scene — not just because readers know and love his mother, ?Precious, from Sapphire’s debut novel, Push, and the celebrated movie recently made from it, but because it’s already apparent that the little boy has no one else in the world to care for him.

Sure enough, after the funeral Abdul ?is shunted into an ?appalling foster-care situation (where he’s beaten so brutally that the ensuing concussion lands him in the hospital for weeks) and then to a Catholic orphanage where he’s repeatedly raped and abused — and where, by the time he’s 14, Abdul is raping and abusing younger boys himself. Sapphire is a gifted writer, and she depicts the transformation from victim to predator with chilling horror. The Kid is not easy to read — ?in fact, I kept having to put it down — but what happens to disenfranchised kids like Abdul isn’t pretty. The system that’s meant to serve them often doesn’t. And yet. There’s just no glimmer of humanity left in Abdul’s soul. Even after he tries to ?redeem himself through dancing, just as his mother used writing as a lifeline, it’s nearly impossible to empathize with him. You won’t like Abdul. You won’t care about him. But you won’t be able ?to stop thinking about him, either. B

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