by Lesley Roessing
There are students who already were struggling for various reasons, and they are particularly vulnerable. These are the children that may be hiding in plain sight in our classrooms or, more typically now, in our remote classes.
Three years ago, YA Wednesday posted my guest-blog “Hiding in Plain Sight: A Different Diversity” about some of these children—children of incarcerated parents, children who are homeless or living in poverty, children experiencing mental illness or children whose parents exhibit mental illness, and children living in foster care. Statistics show that it is likely that they are in our classrooms in unimagined numbers.
This blog is an update of “Hiding in Plain Sight,” limited to novels that I have read since that writing and featuring characters who represent those children.
It is essential for children to see their lives reflected in books, appreciating those stories as mirrors acknowledging and valuing their struggles and acknowledging their resilience. They can also employ these stories as maps to help them navigate their lives. But it is equally vital for readers to see the lives of those they may see as different from themselves—their classmates and peers who are experiencing these challenges—to gain understanding and compassion, stories as windows into the lives of others. Today, thanks to perceptive, empathetic authors—many of whom experienced these same challenges, these novels with their unforgettable characters are available to diversify school, classroom, community, and home libraries.
Children of Incarcerated Parent
Seventh-grader Cleveland Rosebud Potts has her future planned out. She is going to do everything she needs to get away from boring Sassafras, Florida, and move to Paris for eighth grade. She has been saving money from her dog-walking business and learning French from CDs borrowed from the library. As part of her Paris Project, she still needs to learn to cook a French meal, eat in a French restaurant, view French Impressionist paintings, and be accepted and earn a full scholarship to attend the American School of Paris. She has been wearing the beret her father gave her daily as inspiration.
However, many roadblocks have occurred on her way. Her father is a gambler, betting on dog races, and stole not only from his boss which has earned him a 7-month jail sentence, but took all of Cleveland’s savings, and as the daughter of a criminal, most of her clients have fired her. Her mother cleans houses to try to keep ahead of the bills, and her older sister Georgia works many jobs saving for her dream, to attend the University of Vermont the following year. When she video visits her father in prison, she has ambivalent feelings—she misses the funny father she loves but is furious with his actions and their effect on the family. Because of her father’s crime, the other girls at school ignore or laugh at her and she sits alone at lunch; in fact, people in town are wary of the whole family. “Life got divided into ‘before’ and ‘after’ that awful day when Dad was arrested for stealing money from Mr. Ronnie Baker.” (64)
Cleveland is not only determined and focused, she is spunky—she doesn’t complain the she only has a few outfits, her sneakers have holes, and her stomach frequently rumbles from hunger. And she does have one true friend—an eighth grader who also lives in the trailer park and is working on becoming a chef like the mother who left him and his father. Declan teaches her to cook French food, helping her to check that off her Paris Project list. However, when he becomes friends, and maybe more, with the son of her father’s former boss’ (the man who put her father in jail), Cleveland has to decide how to act. “'Do you like Todd?… I mean do you ‘like’ him?” “Yes.” I understood that the words I said next mattered. A lot. I took a slow breath and gathered my thoughts. “That’s really great, Declan.” (162-3)
One friend decides to leave the pack of mean girls, and Declan and Todd stop by Cleveland’s locker with hugs and high fives, and “When it came to sisters, [she’d] hit the lottery,” (178). Together her support system, along with her strong mother, Cleveland navigates life after and “after that” when her dad is released from prison. Preparing for the Paris Project ends up taking on a whole new meaning as Cleveland sets new goals.
“I’ve been alive sixteen years, and this is the first time since my granny died that anyone has ever noticed me.” (10)
Jacaranda is a high school junior and works as a bagger at Publix in Florida. Her mother is in prison for attempted murder and, after her aunt refused to care for her, Jacaranda started her journey through the foster system. Her future goals are to graduate high school and possibly become a Publix manager one day. But as of now her goal is to get a solo in her high school spring concert.
When a customer asks her to sing, she sings the Publix jingle and is recorded by another customer. The video goes viral, and Jacaranda’s life changes. An anonymous benefactor sees the video and sponsors her enrollment in a prestigious arts school in Michigan where she realizes that her dreams can be much bigger.
The reader lives with Jackie, as she now calls herself, through her daily emails to her sponsor as she navigates her new world, taking nothing for granted—real meals, new clothes, friends who help her as she also helps them, mentors, visits to New York City, even jealous classmates, and ever-widening opportunities. She loves everything about her new life and doesn’t take anything for granted. “Do you know what I love most as MAA? You might think it’s the surroundings or the people or the opportunities. I love all those things. But the best thing is the predictability…. I didn’t have that type of predictability in foster care, and I sure didn’t have it with my mother.” (253)
And she even has a wealthy boyfriend—a wealthy, nice, compassionate boyfriend. But as she fits in and earns roles in the school musicals, Jackie constantly worries that Jarvis and her new friends will no longer accept her if they find out she is poor and her mother is in prison. “It was always so shameful being poor, even though it’s a matter of luck when you’re a kid.” (131) Jackie tries to keep her background and her mother’s situation a secret even as she meets a classmate who is brave enough to share her own past homelessness.
Reading Jacaranda’s story through her emails to her benefactor lets readers live through not only her linear story but learn about teachers, her past, and thoughts that may not be accessible in even a first person story narrative. It also allows for short read-alouds at the beginning of ending of a class period. Alex Flinn’s new novel tells a story of poverty, acceptance, resilience, and relationships.
Readers follow the journey of two new friends from different types of lives as they discover themselves and how to navigate their lives.
Lauren is a wealthy teen who goes to a Quaker school. She is very close to her brother Ryan but, when he is sent to a boarding school for teens on the autism spectrum, Lauren is sure that he isn’t happy, that the school is not meeting his needs, and that her parents sent him away. She then realizes that all teens who need it can’t afford the help Ryan is getting and she designs a scheme to raise money, selling the “shiny things” that she feels her affluent family and friends don’t really need. Her scheme spirals out of control as she begins stealing items from stores, family, and friends, selling them on line, and the thrill of stealing takes over. She even involves her new friend Sierra.
Sierra’s father, a drug addict, is in jail; her mother, an alcoholic, who Sierra has cared for years in a life of poverty, is also in jail. What she wants is her family; what she needs is a stable loving family—and a friend, but not a friend who gets her involved with her own addiction.
Sierra moves in next door to Lauren with her foster parents Carl and Anne, an interracial Quaker couple who are surviving the trauma of losing their own child. She pushes them away, anxious to get back to her old life, but “In the end, he [Carl] had me find the proof/ before the statement./ A new way to think.” (p 235) Sierra and Lauren’s friendship guides them in finding a new way of thinking. Sierra realizes she can love her mother but she can’t help her, and she can let Carl and Anne help her. “I know I can’t be your mom, Sierra,/ but I can be your Anne.” (p. 333) Lauren realizes that she can stop worrying about Ryan who is happy in his new environment and she can’t save the world, but “I do know this: I’m not going to forget about Hailey or zone out when I walk past someone asking for money on the street. I won’t. Because someday, maybe, I’ll be able to do something more.” (p. 353)
Lauren’s and Sierra’s narrations are written by each of the authors in their own unique style: Lauren’s narratives in prose and Sierra’s in free verse, styles which fit the characters’ personalities and lives, lives populated by culturally diverse friends and their families as they traverse the Philadelphia I know so well.
“Be careful what you wish for. You just might get it.”
Charlie Reese was very careful what she wished for, and she made sure to make her wish every day since 4th grade. Charlie knew every way there was to make wishes and never missed an opportunity.
Charlie’s family was “broken”—her Mam hadn’t “put her feet on the ground” or paid attention to her in a long time, her father, Scrappy, had a temper and was in prison getting “corrected,” and Jackie, her older sister, was living with a girlfriend, graduating from high school, and working.
Charlie is sent to live with her mother’s older sister Bertha and her husband Gus in the Blue Ridge Mountains where people may or may not eat squirrel. Bertha and Gus are loving, try hard, and even though the cheesy Cinderella pillowcases, Bertha’s endless stories, and Gus’ “Butterbean” nickname for her may not be appreciated by Charlie, they never stop trying. “No, me and Gus are the lucky ones, right, Gus?” (157)
Author Barbara O’Connor sweeps the reader into the story from the first page through Charlie’s voice. “My name is Charlie. Charlemagne is a dumb name for a girl and I have told my mama that about a gazillion times. I looked around me at all the hillbilly kids doing math in their workbooks.” (3) Charlie is lost, but in Colby she meets Howard, a true friend, and Wishbone, her adopted dog, knowing that he was for her the first time she saw him, even before she caught him and he became her constant companion. “…I sent my thoughts zipping through the trees to wherever Wishbone was. I wanted him to know he didn’t have to be a stray like me.” (79)
The characters were all well-developed and unique, Howard, the boy with the up-down walk who ignores the bullies and the mean kids, whose wish is to have Charlie as a friend, and becomes her moral compass; the numerous Odom kids and the loving Mrs. Odom who is accepting of everyone with their quirks. “I’m so glad to have a feisty female around here to help me keep these boys under control. I been needing a girl on my team.” (109)
Charlie’s older sister Jackie comes to visit and as positive, gregarious, and appreciative of Charlie’s new town as she is, Charlie learns that Jackie has grown up with the knowledge that, when she was seven and Charlie was a baby, their mother left them. “Nothing’s gonna change, Charlie.….Scrappy is gonna keep being Scrappy and Mama is gonna keep being Mama and you and I are on our own. (178) But her visit helps to show Charlie just how lucky she is to have a new start in her new town. “You got a good life here, Charlie.” (179)
Sometimes you get what you wish for, but sometimes you get even more.
In this novel, a group of six fifth/sixth grade special education students not only have classes together but their intuitive, empathetic teacher gives them the gift of an hour every Friday to go on their own as a group, and talk with each other in another room—the ARTT room (A Room To Talk). Over the year the six come to know each other’s stories, fears, and hopes—Esteban whose father was taken by Immigration officers; Ashton who, as the only white student in the school, is bullied; Tiago whose Puerto Rican mother becomes more quiet as she is ridiculed for speaking only Spanish; Amari who can no longer play with the toy guns he loves because, as a Black adolescent, it is not safe; Haley, the narrator whose father is in jail and mother died when she was three; and Holly, her best friend who struggles with ADHD and has to defend being “rich.”
Through their conversations and as they share more of themselves and their stories, this group becomes a family, a safe harbor for each other. “’Club Us,’ Amari said. ‘The membership requirements are kinda messed up, but whatever.’” (96) Meanwhile Haley is struggling with her father coming home from jail and her uncle, who has parented her since she was three, leaving. She reflects back on the year and what it meant to her story, “I didn’t know it would be people you barely knew becoming friends that harbored you. And dreams you didn’t even know you had—coming true. I didn’t know it would be superpowers rising up out of tragedies, and perfect moments in a nearly empty classroom.” (175)
The shifting timeline might be difficult for some readers, and they may want to keep a timeline of the events in the novel, but they will come to care for the characters and perhaps, in this story, see themselves (a mirror) or their peers (a window).
Childhood Mental Health Disorders
As a former classroom teacher and one who now works with classroom teachers, I especially appreciated reading Nora Raleigh Baskin’s novel Anything But Typical which is narrated by Jason, a sixth grader who has autism. The reader sees the world through Jason’s eyes and thoughts as he navigates middle school and home life and translates that world into his story writing. We learn that, like most adolescents, Jason has insecurities, teachers who lack knowledge about him, a longing for friends and a girlfriend, and anxieties about fitting in. What Jason does have is a loving, sensitive, accepting family—his nuclear family, not his relatives, therapists who teach him coping mechanisms, and a talent for writing.
As our classrooms become more and more diverse, we need to offer readers more diverse books so that everyone can see themselves represented and valued in books and readers can learn to respect others who may be different from them through books. This novel would pair well with Kathy Erskine’s novel Mockingbird and M is for Autism written by the students of Limpsfield Grange School as well as Planet Earth is Blue and Same But Different, also reviewed in this section.
In Alyson Gerber’s first novel Braced, readers were given the opportunity to learn the story of Rachel Brooks, a middle grades student who has scoliosis but also who has persistence and resilience. Rachel learns to re-see herself and her strengths, and she provided, for many readers, a mirror to their lives and the chance to see themselves and their physical struggles valued in a novel. And maybe more importantly, Braced gave readers who have not had to face such challenges an awareness, empathy, and understanding for those who do.
In the same way, Gerber’s new novel Focused shares the story of Clea Adams, a seventh grader who has ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder). Clea works as hard as she can on her schoolwork but just cannot seem to complete all the tasks; she doesn’t always follow directions, finish assignments, or remember what she needs to do. She feels that she isn’t trying hard enough or isn’t smart enough to achieve. She is also affected socially as she blurts out whatever she is thinking, interrupting conversations and sharing the secrets of others.
Luckily, on the plus side, she has a best friend Red, a new girlfriend Sanam, a supportive family, and she is really good at chess, which she loves. Chess is the one activity where she seems to be able to focus. But when her lack of focus and impulsivity cause her to lose her friendship with Red and possibly forfeit her chance to remain on the chess team, Clea needs to take action. She is tested for ADHD and learns that it is her condition that controls her actions, rather than lack of intelligence or willingness to support her friends.
Clea learns that she needs to follow the advice of her psychiatrist, parents, and school counselor and to advocate for herself. “I don’t notice if anyone starts whispering about me when I walk back into the room, but I don’t care if they do, because for the first time all year, I got exactly what I needed and I know for sure I did my best.” (262)
According to the American Psychiatric Association, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is one of the most common mental disorders affecting children. As of August 2018, an estimated 10 percent of children (over 6 million school-age children) had been diagnosed with ADHD. And that is one reason this novel offers not only a good story, but is an important read for children with ADHD and those who love, live, and work with them. Focused will provide not only support for some readers who see their struggles valued in a novel but a map to navigate the difficulties of functioning with ADHD, and for others it will provide understanding of, and empathy for, those friends, family, and peers who may be facing some of Clea’s challenges.
In 2018 the CDC determined that approximately 1 in 59 children is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). According to a study by Boston University, about 30 percent of people diagnosed with ASD "never learn to speak more than a few words."
Nova, an adolescent with nonverbal autism, is locked in her own world with limited communication. She is able to open up this world with the help of her older sister Bridget, the one person who acknowledges her intelligence and takes care of her when their mother can’t. Nova and Bridget share a love for space and space exploration, and their knowledge is vast. As they are taken away from their mother and moved from foster home to foster home, Bridget looks forward to turning eighteen when she promised she will be able to take care of Nova on her own.
When the story begins, Bridget and Nova have run away from their last foster home, and Nova has been placed in a new home with loving foster parents and their older daughter; they all want to get to know Nova, her limitations, but also her capabilities. Meanwhile Nova begins school, repeating sixth grade, experiencing endless testing (her social worker has classified her as “severely mentally retarded”) and getting to know new peers in her special education room, each with their own challenges and abilities. The classmates bond, but Nova is desperately waiting for the Challenger launch with the first teacher aboard; Bridget has promised to find her so they can watch the launch together.
The story is told in alternating third person—the story of Nova’s life with Francine, Billy, Joanie, and school—and first person which the reader views through Nova’s letters to Bridget, letters that would be, in actuality, illegible. I found it very effective to read about people and events and then re-read them from Nova’s perspective.
Having read that the story incorporated the 1986 Challenger space shuttle launch, I began reading this novel with a feeling of trepidation. I assume that this would be experienced in a different way by readers who had not lived through the disaster. It is a moving story, and Nova becomes a character we can all champion as she experiences the disadvantages and finally the benefits of the foster system. Readers will learn a lot about space and our space program, but they will also learn how many times people are judged on assumptions.
Ryan Elizabeth Peete and RJ Peete’s novel Same But Different is based on their own lives. Characters Charlie and Callie are twins; Charlie has autism, and Callie feels that she needs to be his guide, support, rule-maker, and the person who is always there to stand up for him against bullies and those who try to take advantage of his naiveté. This year Callie is starting tenth grade, and Charlie is repeating ninth, but she is still there for him.
In alternating chapters Charlie (RJ) and Callie (Ryan) discuss their lives on the “Autism Express.” Charlie takes us into his world where he “may have autism, but autism doesn’t have [him].” Ryan takes us into her world where it seems that autism may have her a little more than she wants. Ryan does focus on how Charlie affects her life and her relationships with family and peers. It is clear that she loves Charlie and willingly takes responsibility for helping him, but she does stress the negative aspects.
Although every child affected by autism is at a different point of the spectrum and is affected in different ways, a book explaining at least one family’s journey is a valuable addition to the classroom library, as a catalyst for generating important discussions among adolescents. Even though the characters are in high school, the book is appropriate for even young adolescents.
Parent-author Holly Robinson Peete provides an insightful introduction, “A Letter from Mom,” and conclusion, “A Mother’s Hope,” as well as a valuable Resource Guide. A very important point she makes is her worry how RJ's future may be affected as a man of color with autism, a person who doesn't necessarily read the signals of our world.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center found that “children who lost a parent due to suicide when they were teenagers or young adults had the highest chance of being hospitalized for a suicide attempt in the first two years after the parental suicide.” This highlights the vital importance of providing support to children who are grieving.
Klee’s father committed suicide, and Klee was the one who found him. If that weren’t bad enough, his mother moves Klee away from his friends and Manhattan for a senior year in a new high school in the suburbs, away from the museums, art, and parks he loves—the museums, art, and parks where he spent time listening to his father’s stories about Van Gogh and life—and from his friends.
Klee looks for support in Sarah, his one new friend, but he may be demanding more than she can give. When she disappoints him, he cuts himself with a knife and ends up in a psychiatric hospital.
The reader lives through Klee’s hospitalization with him; as does he, we wonder what is real, what is imagined. Who can he trust? He already found that he cannot trust his perfect mother, or can he? Who is real, and whom does he fabricate. How much like his favorite artist, Van Gogh, is he?
Gae Polisner creates a perfect puzzle; I was reminded of the sliding puzzles I played with in childhood. But in sliding puzzles, there always is a piece missing. And Klee finds he does have a piece of the puzzle that is missing and when he finds it, he may be able to build the picture and trust again.
The story is skillfully crafted, as each piece slides into the opening left by the movement of another piece. The characters—Klee, Dr. Alvarez, Sister Agnes Teresa, Martin, Sarah, and even Klee’s mother—are well-developed and are integral parts of the puzzle. There is a transcendental or ethereal quality that reminds me of A.S King’s Still Life with Tornado. There are so many pathways and levels offered by this novel that readers will want to read it multiple times.
“…the sight of stars is always right there. Right in your line of vision. Even on the cloudiest day.”
This novel introduced me to a new favorite character, Aza, whose name takes her through the alphabet and back again. Aza suffers from debilitating anxiety. Green, through Aza, is very effective at describing her condition to the readers, the way it spirals out of control, controlling her life as she tries to figure out who her “self” is. “I was beginning to learn that your life is a story told about you, not one that you tell.”
And as much as Aza tries to control herself and her relationships, her thoughts take over, sometimes rendering her helpless, other times dictating her actions. Her thoughts intrude in her relationship with her new boyfriend Miles and almost derail her relationship with her best friend.
The plot involves a mystery, but I saw that more as a vehicle for the characters’ evolving relationships as they all—Aza, Daisy, Miles and his brother Noah—explore the world, face loss, and navigate relationships with parents and friends. “…the world is also the stories we tell about it,” and John Green helps readers understand the complexities of life—especially life with loss and mental illness.
“My insides are filled with a missing that can’t be fixed with words.” (85) Twelve-year-old Maggie’s world seems to be filled with good-byes. It all began on the first worst day of her life—"Forgot Me Day,” the day her Nana forgot who Maggie was, and then the second worst day, the day Nana died. Maggie becomes anxious that she will forget what is special in her life, and she starts collecting mementoes of small moments. She hides boxes under her bed and in her closet, boxes filled with gifts but also milk cartons and straws from lunches, sticks, rocks, anything that will help her remember.
When the family takes in a foster baby, Maggie knows it is temporary to give the baby a good start until she gets her forever family, but Maggie hides away baby socks and diaper tabs. “A little something. To remember. So my memories don’t disappear.” (13) Baby Izzie is adopted and Maggie is filled with a “giant missing.”
When her secret is discovered, her parents send her to work with Dr. Sparrow, who helps her work toward “a heart big enough to love a lot and a brain healthy enough to let go.” (267)
During all this, Maggie meets a new friend, Mason, who joins their formerly all-girl trapshooting team; helps her little brother Charlie makes friends; finds—and loses—a pet turtle; and has to decide whether to tell a friend’s secret, a secret that could be hurtful to others, risking the loss of that friendship.
Maggie, who struggles with anxiety manifested through hoarding, joins her author-Elly-Swartz-sisters Frankie, who in Smart Cookie is dealing with the loss of her mother, and Molly who struggles with OCD in Finding Perfect in my heart. Their stories will help some young adolescents see their lives reflected and challenges honored and will give others the empathy to understand their peers. For the adult who read these novels, they may provide a flash of insight into those in our classrooms and families.
Parents with Mental Illnesses
Hoarding disorder (HD) affects an estimated 2% to 5% of the general population. HD is unique from other disorders because its symptoms are tangible and entail a large accumulation of objects that prevent the use of space for necessary or usual human functions. This abundance of objects results from a pathological failure to discard objects and not accumulate more. When hoarding is severe, it presents risk of physical and psychological harm to hoarders and their families. Hoarders cannot see that their behavior subjugates the entire family to a life that is permanently altered. Where severe hoarding exists, families rarely have space for shared activities and they are forced to combine spaces inappropriately. Children often realize if they talk about their family secrets, they could lose their parents and homes.
I had, of course, heard of hoarders but did not realize the extent of the problem or the effect on the children until I lived through Annabelle’s secret in Mary E. Lambert’s new novel Family Game Night and Other Catastrophes. Annabelle’s mother is a hoarder, and almost every room of the house is filled with objects, well-organized objects. Mother lives in muumuus, the colors of which signal her moods, and doesn't leave the house.
One room is the exception. On her tenth birthday, Annabelle tossed everything in her bedroom out the window, clearing the room of anything nonessential; she checks once a week for anything not used within the last week. Her younger sister and older brother are not so lucky and live surrounded by piles of their mother’s purchases, new and used. Leslie collects articles about the dangers of hoards and has nightly nightmares; Chad has checked out from family life.
On the day the newspapers, organized by weather report, finally fall off the kitchen shelves onto Leslie, seventh-grader Annabelle was sure things would change. And they did. Their father left home; he knows something has to change, but he doesn’t know how to change it. Their grandmother Nora comes to help, and there is a disastrous Family Game Night.
But as difficult as life is in a house filled to the brim with purchases, Annabelle’s secret is safe from her friends and potential boyfriend. Annabelle has instituted a strict Five- Mile-Radius Rule. No one is invited to meet within a five-mile radius of the house. When she first visits a new friend’s house in fifth grade, “I thought families like Rae’s, with houses that perfect, only existed in books or TV shows.” (17) When her secret is discovered, she realizes that her friends do not let it affect their friendships; they are real friends.
This is a novel about a strong adolescent who helps her family through a challenge as are many of our students, although their challenges may be different ones.
“Turns out, it’s easier than you might think to sneak out of town smuggling a live cricket, three pocketsful of jerky, and two bags of half-paid-for merchandise from Thelma’s Cash ‘n’ Carry grocery store. The hard part was getting up the guts to go.” (1)
As the story begins, Ariana “Cricket” Overland's father and grandmother have died, her mother has left, and she is living with her Aunt Belinda who is secretly planning to pawn her off on Great-Aunt Genevieve. Her mother, a creative artist, has struggled between depression and wild adventures for years and is obsessed with a Bird Room she once saw, a room where “Everything was alive.” Cricket is sure that her mother will return to lay her grandmother’s headstone and, having said she wished her mother could “just be normal” (106) the night before she took off, Cricket wants to find the Bird Room and prove that her mother is not crazy and maybe find a treasure using clues hidden by the mysterious Mr. Bob. “I couldn’t stop Mama from leaving, and I couldn’t stop Daddy from dying, but I could sure do something now. (11)
When Aunt Belinda abandons her in Thelma’s Cash ‘n’ Carry, Cricket takes her pet cricket, spends all her money on supplies and food, writing an IOU for what she can’t afford, and takes off for Woods Time, as her father would say. Living in a tree house and following her father’s guidelines for survival, she survives raccoons stealing most of her food and supplies and an ice storm, and explores the ghost town, torn down and abandoned by a lumber company, until clues—and a snake bite—lead her to Miss V, the one person whose house still exists, a woman who helps Cricket discover that not only her mother, but she, “contains multitudes.” “I thought about what Miss V had said about Mama being more than what the neighbors thought…. And it wasn’t who I was, either. I was my own, whole person.…Maybe it was time to start taking chances on me.” (203)
Ariana Overland is an adolescent a reader wants to champion. She joins the ranks of literary strong girls as the resourceful and resilient hero of an adventure story about family and identity written by a new author with an incredible voice.
(This novel was also reviewed in “Stories of Surviving Loss & Abandonment”)
Jack’s mother frequently spins out of control. Sometimes she is sad, sometimes she is normal and sorry about her behaviors, but more often she is “spinning”—loud and excited and full of fun, usually inappropriate fun. She takes Jack out of school to go to amusement parks and makes up games, but she also fights with her mother and takes away Jack’s trust of his grandmother. Jack wishes his mother would take her medication more regularly.
On a camping trip in Maine, she leaves Jack and disappears. It is up to this 11-year-old boy to find his way back to Massachusetts and, hopefully, his mother. Obsessed with elephants, Jack steals a toy elephant which becomes his good luck charm and battles weather, a broken finger, hunger, fatigue, and evading the police once he is listed as missing, before he learns to trust a new friend who takes him to Lydia the elephant and to his grandmother who will help make his life safe and filled with love.
Part adventure, part confronting challenges and accepting help, this novel and its resilient character will appeal to many and raise empathy for what too many children face.
This story of 11-year-old Lyndie Baines covers a lot of territory, but it is primarily about truth and the effect of lies or sometimes just not knowing the truth. The novel also shares the effects of war on those who serve, their families, and their communities.
Lyndie’s father, his friends, and neighbors served in the war in Viet Nam. Some never returned, some returned with physical scars, and others, like Lyndie’s dad, returned with psychological scars, scars which affect their families and lives.
Lyndon Baines (yes, named after that Lyndon Baines), an avid student of history, knows this isn’t particular to the Viet Nam conflict; she has read many letters written by Civil War soldiers. She doesn’t realize just how damaged her father is, but she suspects that he and her mother, a former activist who now stays in her bedroom with constant headaches, are not quite okay. “I don’t think my parents know how to head us in the right direction” (24).
Lyndie struggles in her school, where she doesn’t fit in; she struggles in her new home with her parents; Grandpa Tad; her proper Southern grandmother Lady, to whom keeping family secret private and keeping to schedules is primary, even when the family needs help and even if perpetually-grounded Lyddie needs a normal childhood; and she struggles with the type of person she wants to be—more like her altruistic best friend Dawn. She is a fighter, but she also cares about things deeply.
And then D.B. enters the picture, a former foster child released from a juvenile detention center to live with Dawn’s family, at least for the school year. Lyndie decides she needs to save D.B. despite her father’s words, “Take care, what you lend your heart to” (73). Through her relationship with D.B., Lyndie learns that things are not always what they seem—with him, with Pee Wee, with her family.
When things come to a crisis on her twelfth birthday, Lyndie has to take steps to expose the truth, “’No,’ I correct myself. We’re not okay. Not really.’” (267) and make things right—for her, her family, and D.B. and put all the scraps together.
Children in Foster Care
Melissa Taylor was their mother. That is what Grace. Maya, and Joaquin have in common. But it is enough to make them "family" when they meet as teenagers. All three were given up at birth or shortly thereafter: Grace to a loving middle-class family; Maya to a wealthy family who then had their own biological child—and their own problems; and Joaquin to a lifetime of foster homes. Then 16-year-old Grace becomes pregnant, and after her baby Milly is adopted, Grace yearns to finds her biological mother.
When the three siblings meet, they immediately bond and help each other, not only to find the part of their identity they thought missing, but they help each other fit into their present families and lives and discover that it is possible to have two families and feel complete. Maya is able to accept her place as the only brunette in a family of tall redheads and forgive a mother who is an alcoholic; Joaquin is ready to value himself and trust enough to let himself be adopted; and Grace can forgive herself for giving her baby a life apart from her.
Reading this winner of the 2017 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, I laughed and cried. These are characters who get under your skin as soon as you meet them.
"You know how teachers are. If they get you to take out a book they love too, they're yours for life" (p.168). Every teacher will want to get this in every middle school and high school student’s hands. I read this novel straight through, stopping only to drive to a school and guest-teach a 6th grade class (where I talked about the book) and ran home to finish.
I loved every single character (except the bullies—child and adult). I loved 14-year-old Joseph, a foster child who has been repeatedly hurt by others; to 12-year-old Jack who "has Joseph's back" almost from the beginning and counts how many times Joseph smiles while not giving up on trying to get Joseph to call him Jack, not Jackie; to Jack's parents, Joseph's foster parents who have taken in a teenager who served time in juvenile detention and are trying to help him heal and become whole again; to the teachers and coach who see the positive in Joseph.
As Joseph searches for his baby daughter Jupiter, for someone to love, his past comes to haunt him.
I laughed and I cried through this heartbreaking novel, and I keep re-writing the ending, not because it wasn't well-written, not because it wasn't realistic, but because it was not the ending I wanted.
“Styx Malone didn’t believe in miracles, but he was one. Until he came along, there was nothing very special about life in Sutton, Indiana.” (1) The first page just keeps getting better until the last line seals the deal—“It all started the moment I broke the cardinal rule of the Franklin household: Leave well enough alone.” (1)
Ten-year-old narrator Caleb Franklin and his eleven year old brother Bobby Gene live in a small town and their father does not allow them to venture out from where everyone knows them and they are “safe.” Caleb’s goal is to get to the museum in Indy. And to be extraordinary, not “extra-ordinary” as he thinks his father is calling him.
Then the brothers meet a mysterious sixteen-year-old name Styx Malone. Yes, Styx as in Greek mythology, where the River Styx separated the world of the living from the world of the dead. Malone may not be their transport from the dead to the living, but it sure seems so. Styx is free from parental restraints and always has a plan that becomes bigger and better. “The moment felt like Saturday, like summer heat, like adventure…. It felt like the soft swish of corn tassels and being one step closer to an impossible dream… One step closer to our happy ending.” (116)
As the boys become more and more involved with Styx, providing the friendship it appears he is missing in his life, they learn that he is a foster child who has moved from home to home, family to family, and his life may not be as glamorous as it seems. “’Only person you can ever count on is yourself.’…There were lots of people I could count on…. But I got what Styx was saying: Freedom came with a price.” (154)
Many things changed the season Styx Malone “shook [their] world.” That summer did make a difference—to Styx himself and to expanding the world of the Franklins.
There were many interesting, delightful characters, including Cory Cromier, the eleven-year-old bully who loves babies and becomes a Franklin brothers’ ally, and Pixie, Styx’s magical ten-year-old foster sister. This book, with its short chapters, each ending with seductive lines. and prospective discussions of morality, ethics, responsibility, friendship, and family, would make a good read aloud for grades 5-8.
Children Living in Poverty/Homelessness
“Some people can do their homework. Some people get to have crushes on boys. Some people have other things they’ve got to do.” (52)
And seventh-grader Zoey has a lot she has to do. She has to pick up the baby from her mom’s job; she has to meet her little sister and brother at the bus stop, take them home, and many times feed them. She has to keep them busy in the one bedroom they all share so they don’t bother her mother’s boyfriend or mess up his perfectly organized, clean trailer. She has to help her friend Fuschia when she is thrown into an abusive situation and her friend Silas when rumors are spread about him. And she has to get through each day, as unnoticed as possible, so she doesn’t get teased for her unwashed clothes. If only she were an octopus, she could use her many arms to hold her three siblings, do her homework, help her mother; she could camouflage herself and be even less noticeable; she could change her shape and fit in small places. She could protect herself, her friends, and her family.
Zooey used to have a strong, competent mother. But that was before Lenny, Lenny who breaks her confidence with his verbal abuse. How can Zoey convince her mother to leave; how can they afford to leave?
“It’s not enough to know your stuff. Not if one of the things you know for sure is that everyone you’re going up against is better than you.” (42)
There is one teacher who sees the potential in Zoey and forces her to join the debate team where Zoey learns about discrediting your opponent, thinking from new perspectives, and saying what you think with passion. When she hears Matt Hubbard, the most popular boy in the class—but one who has been nice to her—give a speech, “…suddenly, I know. This isn’t some crush on a boy. This is me wanting to feel the way he does. Strong. Confident. Like no one would even think about messing with me.” (68) Through her teacher and her mother’s friend Connor, she gets to the point “…when you start to wonder if maybe you do have a choice about the kind of person you want to become.” (102)
And she needs to help her mother back to the place where she realizes that she has choices and the right to be treated well, even if it means a harder life.
One plane crash. One father’s death. Two families’ loss.
“Papi boards the same flight every year.” (18) This year when her father leaves for his annual 3 months in his homeland, Yahaira knows the secret he has kept for 17 years. But she is unaware of who else knows. Not Camino, the other daughter who is practically Yahaira’s twin. Camino only knows she has a Papi who lives and works in New York City nine months a year to support her and the aunt who has raised her since her mother died.
When Papi’s plane crashes on its way from New York to the Dominican Republic, all passengers lose their lives and many families are left grieving. But none are more affected than the two daughters who loved their Papi, the two daughters whose mothers he had married.
“It was like he was two
Completely different men.
It’s like he split himself in half.
It’s like he bridged himself across the Atlantic.
Never fully here or there.
One toe in each country.” (360)
Sixteen year old Yahaira lives in NYC, a high school chess champion until she discovered her father’s secret second marriage certificate and stopped speaking to him and stopped competing, and has a girlfriend who is an environmentalist and a deep sense of what’s right. “This girl felt about me/how I felt about her.” (77) Growing up in NYC, Yahaira was raised Dominican.
“If you asked me what I was,
& you meant in terms of culture,
I’d say Dominican.
no question about it.
Can you be from a place
you have never been? “ (97)
Sixteen year old Camino’s mother died quite suddenly when she was young, and she and her aunt, the community spiritual healer, are dependent on the money her father sends. Not wealthy by any means, they are the considered well-off in the barrio where Papi was raised; Camino goes to a private school and her father pays the local sex trafficker to leave her alone. And then the plane crash occurs.
“Two months to seventeen, two dead parents,
& an aunt who looks worried
Because we both know, without my father,
Without his help, life as we’ve known it has ended.” (105)
Camino’s goal has always been to move to New York, live with her father, and study to become a doctor at Columbia University. Finding out about her father’s family in New York, she makes a plan with her share of the insurance money from the airlines. But Yahaira has her own plan—to go to her father’s Dominican burial despite the wishes of her mother, meet this sister, and explore her culture.
When they all show up, readers see just how powerfully a family can form.
grasps my hand
I feel her squeeze
& do not let go
hold tight.” (353)
“It is awkward, these familial ties & breaks we share.” (405)
After the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 just two months after 9/11/2001, it was sometimes a spontaneous reaction for passengers to clap when the plane landed, one of “the many ways Dominicans celebrate touching down onto our island.” (Author’s Note).
On the first day of middle school Rex arrives at school with a black eye and his name in the Free Lunch Program registry. This was supposed to be a great year. “I guess it won’t be after all.” (25)
When his friends all join the football team, Rex has no one to sit with at lunch. “Having a place to sit in middle school is important. ‘Cause it means you have friends. Popular kids sit at one table. Football players sit nearby. Cheerleaders too. Band kids are in one area, school newspaper and yearbook kids at another. Religious kids have a table. So do the kids who play Dungeons & Dragons. The whole cafeteria is that way. Everyone has their place. Everyone except me.” (56)
As Rex lives through a year of avoiding being hit by his mentally-unstable mother and her abusive boyfriend; taking care of his little brother; sleeping in a room with only a sleeping bag; having his one possession—his Sony boombox, a present from his real dad—pawned; surviving a teacher who treats him as “less than;” and moving to government-subsidized housing in view of the school, he still feels the responsibility to help his mother. When his friend Liam steals some candy at the grocery “because [he] can,” the cashier asks to see Rex’s pockets, and Rex learns the double standard for the wealthy and the poor. “I don’t get why folks act like being poor is a disease, like it’s wrong or something.” (53)
On the positive side, Rex makes a new friend at school, Ethan, a boy who may have seems a “total weirdo” at first but turns out to be a good person and true friend and have his own family problems, and Rex’s teacher learns to admit and face her own prejudices. Rex comes to the realization that “Mom didn’t sign me up for the Free Lunch Program to punish me. She did it so I could have food….Things are not as black and white as I thought. Maybe some things are gray, somewhere in between.” (188)
Rex’s mother finally obtains a job, and he even receives a present for Christmas. “I may not have a million presents, but I have one. And one is better than none.” (188) As Ethan tells him, “…no one has a perfect life. There is no such thing as ‘perfect.’ It’s just an idea.” (195)
However, some lives are indeed less perfect. About 15 million children in the United States – 21% of all children – live in families with incomes below the federal poverty threshold. Forty-three percent of children live in families who earn less than necessary to cover basic expenses (NCCP). And Rex Ogle, author, was one of them—and Free Lunch is his personal story.
Ten-year-old Mia becomes an activist and champion of those who cannot, or will not, stand up for themselves [“You don’t get it, kid. I’ve been fighting my whole life. I’m done. It’s no use fighting—people are gonna be the way they’re gonna be” (105)], teaches others the wrongs of prejudice and injustice, and forms a community from her neighbors, patrons, and fellow immigrants.
Mia and her parents emigrated from China to the United States for a more “free” life. In China her parents were professionals; in America they feel lucky to find a job managing a motel. But the owner, Mr. Yao, is unkind, unjust, cheap, and prejudiced. He reduces their salaries until they are working for lodging and a life of poverty. And while this is a novel about Mia who manages the front desk and helps her parents temporarily hide other Chinese immigrants who have been mistreated, it is really a novel of culture, prejudice, bullying, community, and, most of all, the power of writing. “It was the most incredible feeling ever, knowing that something I wrote actually changed someone’s life.” (218)
In America there are two roller coasters, and people are born to a life on one or the other, but Mia and her friend Lupe, whose family came from Mexico, have decided to break that cycle. Although bullied in school and warned by her mother that she will never be a “native” English writer, Mia develops her writing skills to help Hank gain employment after a wrongful arrest, free “Uncle” Zhang whose ID and passport were being held by his employer, share her story with her teacher and classmates, and finally persuade friends and strangers to take a chance on her family.
Mia is a representative of the “nearly twenty million immigrant children currently living in the United States, 30 percent of whom are living at or below poverty.” (Author’s Note). Author Kelly Yang, one of those immigrant children, shares the autobiographical elements of the novel in her Author’s Note.
Front Desk, with its very short chapters and challenging topics would be a meaningful and effective 10-minute read-aloud to begin Grade 4-7 daily reading workshop focus lessons. I would suggest projecting Mia’s letters since they show her revisions as she seeks to improve her language skills and word choices.
“It’s not like I get hit. I don’t get touched. I don’t get threatened.… We don’t always have food but I manage to eat.… I take care of my sister.”
“But what does it take to be in danger? What does that even mean? Are things not bad enough? Should things be worse for me before…before I can make them better?”
Gem has been organizing her life and taking care of her younger sister Dixie and her mother most of her life. Her philandering father was kicked out and is a rare presence in their lives, and her mother drinks and uses drugs. I was drawn to Gem from the very beginning when the reader first encounters her as a child taking care of Dixie and leading her on “adventures” in their apartment. As the sisters enter high school, popular, pretty Dixie grows away from the Gem, accepting life as it is and making it work for her. We see Gem, a high school junior, hustling quarters to buy lunch because her father is long gone and her mother won’t fill out the paperwork for free lunches. My heart broke for her as, alone and friendless and somewhat sister-less, she navigates life with the help of her school psychologist Mr. Bergstrom.
Their father’s return leads to an opportunity for the sisters to leave on a real adventure and although they bond for a few days, Dixie opts to return home while Gem, even though she still worries about Dixie, takes the solution that can make her own life better.
Author Sara Zarr created a character who broke my heart even while I was rooting for her.
“Everything that happened, it was only because we wanted our parents to be better, to know how to take care of us.”
“We’re gonna get evicted again. If we get evicted again, you said you’re gonna leave…. I’m tired of coming home and our stuff’s on the lawn…. I’m tired of staying in people’s basements! Why can’t you just pay the rent! Just stop gambling and pay the rent!” (280)
Eighth-grader Genesis Anderson’s family has been evicted four times already. Her father has a gambling problem and is an alcoholic but somehow he moves them from Detroit to a house in the fashionable Farmington Hills. But again the rent is not paid, and they will probably lose this home also.
Genesis has other problem, problems with other kids at her schools calling her names based on the darkness of her skin. Her parents are from complicated families with ideas about skin color and class. Genesis hates the color of her skin and the texture of her hair, wishing she looked like her beautiful light-skinned mother. “’I can’t stand you, ‘ I say to my reflection.” (10) She thinks her father has rejected her because she is dark like he is. “What if I inherited all Dad’s ways? What if no one recognizes that I’m…one of the good ones?” (154) “Every single night I’ve prayed for God to make me beautiful—make me light. And every morning I wake up exactly the same.” (157)
Even though she is finally making friends in her new school, two friends—Todd and Sophia—who know what it’s like to be stereotyped and bullied and like Genesis for who she is, she tries to bleach her skin and relax her hair to fit in, become popular, and please her father and grandmother.
Through her chorus teacher’s discovery of her singing talent and introductions to the music of Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Eta James, Genesis finds the courage to audition for the school talent show and sing. “I can’t believe it. I did it. I, Genesis Anderson, stepped out onto that stage and sang. Out loud. In Public. Alone.” (249) At the actual performance, she discovers her strength. “I let each word soar. I swoop down to hug the little girl sitting on the curb with all her furniture. I visit the girl in the basement with the wrinkled brown bag passing from hand to hand. I kiss the lonely girl who hears ugly taunts from the mirror. I experience every moment. And I’m not afraid.” (348)
According to the DODEA, “Children who experience the loss of a parent or other family member through a military line-of-duty death are likely to face a number of unique issues.” Izzy’s father died when she was ten, before her younger brother Jack was born. Her small family, estranged from her father’s relatives, has moved from place to place as her mother, a nurse’s aide, tries to support them.
When she moves to a trailer park in Virginia, Isabella Crawford becomes embroiled in the family drama of her best friend. As a member of the acapella group at the private school where she is a scholarship student, she befriends a freshman who is battling her own demons. To make her life even more complicated, her family becomes the recipient of a Habit for Humanity house, and Izzy has to volunteer hours towards its construction.
In the midst of all this drama, Izzy, who is determined to keep her family’s circumstances a secret from her classmates, discovers what friendship and trusting friends—and family—really means as she reconnects with her father’s pig-farming family and finds that her wealthy friends and her new boyfriend care about her, not her economic status.
Izzy, an adolescent straddled between two cultures—that of her Puerto Rican mother and her North Carolina father—is not quite sure where she belongs but learns to share her world with others. She is a memorable, well-developed character whom I did not want to leave at the end of Mara Padian’s new novel.
After Isaiah Dunn’s father died suddenly of a heart attack, his mother, too depressed to work, took her solace in bottles. “But I do think. About how the world can be good and happy for one person, but bad and sad for somebody else. And how everything can change in just one minute…like it did for me, Mama, Daddy, and Charlie.” (21)
Fifth-grader Isaiah, his mother, and his 4-year-old sister Charlise lost their apartment and moved into the “Smokey Inn,” which is how Isaiah refers to their motel. But then they lost even that, living in their car until they were rescued by a former neighbor.
“Every day Mrs. Fisher writes a sentence on the board, and we have a few minutes to write something about it. Today she wrote, ‘My world is a good and happy place.” (21)…I keep my workbook closed, too, cuz there’s no way I’m writing and words about being safe and happy.” (23) And a few days later, “I wanna tell Mrs. Fisher there’s no way I’m writing about ‘my favorite room in my house’.”(55)
But Isaiah does have his father’s notebook of stories of the superhero Isaiah Dunn which he reads slowly and savors, and he has a love of words, a talent for writing poems, and the goal of making enough money somehow to move his family into a house. He truly wants to be Isaiah Dunn, Superhero. But life is tough, and young adolescent lives are complicated under the best of circumstances. The reader follows Isaiah’s year as he navigates changing relationships with classmates and faces his own grief, attempting to hold his family together, and we cheer him on as he creates a lasting tribute to his father’s memory.
Isaiah Dunn’s story began in the short story anthology Flying Lessons, and author Kelly Baptist develops this engaging character in this novel.
What would you do if you won the Mighty Millions Jackpot—all or even a portion of two hundred twelve million? What if just some of that money could keep you from becoming homeless again, allow you the dream of college, take care of the health of your mother and little brother?
Rico Danger, the main character of Jackpot, is one of the children who live in families with incomes below the federal poverty threshold. “…I think that this is totally what I’ve secretly wanted—being a normal teenager with friends that I hang out with in basements on Saturday nights…”
But Rico doesn’t have time to hang out and make friends. She works as many shifts as possible at the Gas ‘n Go to help her mother pay the rent and for other necessities, while juggling high school and taking care of her little brother while her mother works double shifts. Rico plans the budget, does the shopping, and worries about the bills, being the financially-responsible household member. She agonizes about their lack of health insurance, especially when her young brother gets sick. She dreads becoming homeless as they were when her mother’s boyfriend kicked them out. And she keeps her head down at school, ashamed of her thrift store clothing.
However, on Christmas Eve, working at the Gas ‘n Go, Rico sells two lottery tickets to an older woman who lets her keep one of the tickets for herself. When it is announced that one of the lottery winners bought the ticket at her store, Rico is sure it was the ticket bought by this woman, the ticket Rico did not choose. As the winnings go unclaimed, Rico plans to find this woman, remind her of the ticket, and hopefully get a cut of the winnings. She swallows her pride and asks Alexander Macklin, the handsome, rich, popular Zan who was also in the store on Christmas Eve, to help her identify and find this lady.
As Rico and Zan and his two friends spend more time together, she experiences not only the life she was missing but learns that things—and people—are not always what they seem and maybe they all have more control over their circumstances than she thought.
An added bonus were the short chapters told from the point of view of objects, such as the lottery ticket, the taxi cab, bed sheets.
Junk Boy introduces reads to two outliers, two dysfunctional families, two stories which become intertwined.
“there is no putting
a tree back up after
in a storm
maybe with us
it’s different” (336)
Bobby Lang, nicknamed Junk by the bullies at school because he lives in a place that has become a junkyard, spends his time flying under the radar, eyes down, not speaking. His father is drunk, abusive, unemployed, and listens to sad country songs; his mother who left when he was a baby is, according to his father, dead. Bobby has no self-confidence and little self-worth, but then he meets Rachel, a talented artist who sees something else in him.
“her eyes could
somehow see a me
that is more me
than I am
that is so weirdly more
so better than
But Rachel has her own family problems. Her father has just moved out and her physically-abusive mother wants the local priest to “reformat” Rachel who is gay.
As Rachel moves in and out of Bobby’s life, her need helps him figure out
“what was I going to
And what he is, or becomes, is a rescuer and protector, a savior. As Father Percy tells him, “It’s what she found in you…” (352)
Reading Tony Abbott’s first verse novel, I felt like I was watching a movie unfold as I followed the protagonist on his hero’s journey.
This novel, which takes place in Vancouver, highlights a very important crisis, in both the United States and Canada—homelessness.
However, there are many other issues incorporated into the plot. Besides homelessness, 12-year-old Dylan’s mother is a pathological liar; his father was a sperm-donor. And while in many books we see that homelessness may be the result of an illness or condition (such as a parent’s alcoholism) or bad luck (i.e., Preacher Jack in this novel), Felix’s mother never tries to be a good employee. She is rude to customers and, although in some cases she hinted that the customer’s actions were inappropriate, in the one interaction the reader actually observes, she is just rude, unprofessional, and not doing the job she was hired to do. She does suffer from some type of depression but that appears to keep her from searching for jobs, not from keeping them.
What I did appreciate in this novel was the resilience and resourcefulness of 12-year-old Felix and the support of his two friends, Dylan and Winnie. The novel illustrates many of the challenges experienced by homeless families to maintain the veneer of normalcy and to stay together and paints a realistic picture of many homeless students in the United States and in Canada, the novel’s setting, where an estimated 235,000 Canadians experience homelessness each year, one of the fastest growing demographics of the homeless population being children and families.
When their teacher explains the Butterfly Effect, “It’s the idea that a small change in one thing can lead to big changes in other things…Anything and everything we do—positive or negative, big or small—can influence other people and the world.” (153, 155) and tasks her 5th graders to think about what they could do within their social-issues projects to make a difference, they do—with repercussions they did not imagine.
Told through their daily journals, readers learn about the lives and feelings of the eight students in Mrs. Graham’s classroom. Emily, whose two best friends have “outgrown” her, struggles through the year wondering if she will have friends again; when she is left to team with other students, she is upset but may have found newer, truer friends. Kayley is honest to a fault since she always knows best; she tells everyone, even the teacher, what is best and what to do, not afraid to burn bridges since she will be attending a private middle school next year. Aviva is caught in the middle. She still wants to be friends with Emily and do what’s right but is manipulated by what Kayley thinks.
Sharon writes her journal in free verse; a typical loner, she hopes for letters in her desk mailbox as she slowly becomes part of a group of friends. Cecilia was born in America but addresses her journal entries to her Abuelita in Mexico, her mother coming to America for a better life for her child. Blake, who loses his home, draws his entries and turns out to be a tech whiz, while Henry writes his journal as scenes and makes jokes, slowly tearing down Kayley’s defenses. Kai, Taiwanese son of professors, is a voracious reader and wants to “be the kind of person who does something.” (230)
And Mrs. Graham is the teacher who forces them to think. When she tells them their first-day seats are their teams for the year, some students rebel but they slowly begin to perform and feel like teams, even friends. When Sharon has the idea that her team should experience a night of homelessness as “full immersion” in their social-issues project, serious consequences result, and it is up to the class to fix them—to make the big changes and influence their community. Named Operation Frog Effect in honor of the class frog they saved, the students learn to be part of a team and of a classroom community.
The Great Jeff is a sequel or companion book, to the 2006 novel Firegirl, and I found it necessary to have read the first book to understand Jeff's feelings about relationships in the new novel. Firegirl left me with questions about Jeff who was not the most sympathetic character and—from his behaviors in that novel—deserved to be ditched by his best friend Tom Bender.
In this well-written, engaging novel, the reader learns more about Jeff and his family and home life, and he becomes a more sympathetic character. Jeff was nine when his father left. Dad is now living with a second girlfriend who is pregnant, and he has stopped paying for Jeff’s education at St. Catherine’s; as a result Jeff has to change schools for eighth grade. “I still wanted to love my dad. Inside me, I still wanted to.” (65)
His mother, an alcoholic, loses her job with no savings for rent. Jeff becomes the sensible one and gives up buying his beloved comics and skips lunch every other day. They begin selling their clothing, household items, and furniture until they lose their rented house and become homeless, moving from run-down motel to a friend’s home to sleeping in their car to a shelter. “Home. Homeless. Funny how it doesn’t take much to go from one to the other.” (171)
Through it all Jeff stays positive and becomes resilient for his mom who only infrequently behaves like a responsible adult. “She’d taken over sounding grownup now. She had to sometime.” (158) He helps her hide their situation, despite his lack of clothing and the days he smells.
In the shelter Jeff can finally open up and share his problems with other children. “[Jano’s] story was different from mine but the same too.” (199) And when his mother ends up in the hospital, Jeff learns to trust those who were always his friends.
“When you learn vocabulary words in school, you memorize the definition. And you have a good idea of what the words mean. But it’s not until you feel them that you really grasp the definition. I have known what the word ‘helpless’ means for a long time. And ‘desperate.’ But I’ve never felt them. Feeling them is different. They fill your chest with a horrible sense of ‘dread’ and ‘guilt’ and ‘despair.’ Those are more vocabulary words that you can’t fully understand until you feel them. (246)
The summer before eighth grade is full of changes for Rachel. She turns 13; she has a job working with animals on her wealthy neighbors’ “farm;” her relationship with Micah changes when she realizes she only wants to remain best friends, not start dating him; she questions her sexual orientation when she realizes that her feelings when she is with Cybil are how she used to feel with Micah; and although her family has always been relatively poor since her mother lost her job, the bank is foreclosing and they are losing their house. If home is where the heart is, as her sister’s pillow proclaims, what defines a home.
In this new novel by author Jo Knowles, some readers will seem themselves represented and others will learn empathy for those whose lives may leave them feeling helpless and desperate, as is the case with too many of our adolescents who are in situations they cannot control.
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To read other YA Wednesday guest-blogs where characters are facing challenges and exhibiting resilience, see
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- Bridging the Gap: Reading Critically & Writing Meaningfully to Get to the Core
- Comma Quest: The Rules They Followed. The Sentences They Saved
- No More “Us” & “Them: Classroom Lessons and Activities to Promote Peer Respect
- The Write to Read: Response Journals That Increase Comprehension
- Talking Texts: A Teachers’ Guide to Book Clubs across the Curriculum
- Young Adult Literature in a Digital World: Textual Engagement though Visual Literacy
- Queer Adolescent Literature as a Complement to the English Language Arts Curriculum
- Story Frames for Teaching Literacy: Enhancing Student Learning through the Power of Storytelling (in press)