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Hope isn't an option


There are a few photos of a young woman named Shayla within the pages of Growing Up Fast (Picador USA, $25). In the earliest one, Shayla looks like the post-millennial all-American girl: a young African-American woman with cafe au lait skin, stylish hair extensions, sexy hoop earrings and a wide white smile. Grinning in the arms of her boyfriend, Shayla is carefree, happy and pretty enough to be a model.

In a later photo, the fancy extensions are gone, replaced by a sloppy short ponytail from which chunks of stray hair slip. Shayla's face is solemn, dimmed and free of makeup. The hard-won wisdom in her expression makes her look almost old enough to be the mother of the beautiful young woman in the earlier picture.

The two photos are separated by about three years. Three years, the birth of a son and the collapse of Shayla's doomed relationship with the abusive, damaged young man who fathered her baby and later beat her and failed to pay her child support.

Filmmaker-turned-author Joanna Lipper spent years interviewing and observing teen mothers Shayla, Amy, Jessica, Colleen, Liz and Sheri, and in Growing Up Fast she chronicles the punishing, powerfully transformative time during which the six metamorphosed from giggling girls chatting in the schoolyard into harried adults with bills, jobs and babies. All six young women hail from Pittsfield, Mass., and their rust-belt hometown is a powerful force in their lives and stories -- Pittsfield is a former General Electric boomtown that was economically destroyed after G.E. pulled out.

Lipper's skill as a journalist is still developing (this is her first book), and her newness to the literary genre is revealed in rare, scattered examples of sub-par writing. But her shortcomings are few and forgivable, and her occasional lack of objectivity, while jarring, is clearly the byproduct of Lipper's compassion for these young women's complex inner lives. The book's minor flaws don't outweigh its importance as a readable and deeply thought-provoking social document.

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