No Place by Todd Strasser
Dan seemed to have it all from being popular to his hot girlfriend to probably getting a baseball scholarship to college. But then his family started having financial problems and they got worse and worse. Finally, they were forced to leave their home and live in Dignityville, a city park reused as a tent city for homeless people. Dan struggles to figure out how to continue being the same person with his friends, how to stay focused on his future, and how to keep dating one of the wealthier girls in town. On a daily basis, Dan is confronted with the differences in lifestyle and priorities. But Dignityville is not without some good aspects. Dan gets to spend more time with his family and he gets to know Meg, a girl who attends his high school and who also lives in Dignityville with her brother and family. Then Meg’s brother is brutally attacked and it quickly becomes evident that there is a conspiracy to destroy Dignityville, one that may end up hurting those that Dan loves.
Strasser tackles the issue of homelessness head on here. Yet he does in such a way as to make it accessible to those who have not experienced it. The emphasis is on the fact that there are all sorts of people who are homeless, not just those with addiction and mental health issues. Seeing the slow fall to homelessness by Dan’s parents and their reaction to being homeless further underlines that people are doing their best in trying and exceedingly difficult situations.
Dan is a very engaging character, one who quickly learns how profoundly his life has changed. The other characters at Dignityville are also well drawn and interesting as are Dan’s parents. The only character I found two-dimensional was Talia, Dan’s girlfriend, who seemed distant and aloof from what was happening. As the book progressed, the mystery of who was trying to shut down Dignityville moved to the forefront of the story. I felt that this distracted from an already powerful story and took it over the top. It was an unnecessary addition to the book.
An important book about a teen and his family experiencing homelessness, teens will find much to love in these pages. Appropriate for ages 14-17.
Reviewed from copy received from Simon & Schuster.
Hold Fast by Blue Balliett
Early lives in a warm and loving family. Her father Dash is a lover of words and word games. Her mother Sum and little brother Jubie make up the total of four in their family. But when Dash gets involved in something shady, their loving family becomes three. Then people raid their home, breaking down the door and they are forced to head to a shelter without knowing where Dash is or how he will find them again in the big city of Chicago. Early finds she has to be the strong one as her mother begins to falter and her brother is so little. Shelter life is difficult and it takes Early some time to realize that she is in the middle of a mystery that she can help solve.
Balliett demonstrates her own love of words and wordplay throughout this novel. Told in beautiful prose, she writes poetically about the city she loves, the beauty of snow, and the power of family. She incorporates wordplay through her protagonist, who looks at words the way her father taught her to. Many times words sound like what they are, points out Balliett, and just reading this book will have readers seeing words in a new way.
Balliett also introduces young readers to the poetry of Langston Hughes. One of his books is at the heart of not only the mystery of the book but at the heart of the family. As Hughes muses on dreams and their importance, both Early and the reader are able to see his words and understand them deeply.
The aspect of the homeless shelter and the difficulties the family and Early face there is an important one. Balliett is obviously making a point with her book, sometimes too obviously. There are also some issues with plotting, with the book dragging at points and struggling to move forward. That aside, the writing is stellar and the characters strong.
Another fine offering from Balliett, get this one into the hands of her fans. It will also be great choice for reading aloud in classrooms with its wordplay and strong African-American characters and family. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from ARC received from Scholastic.
No Ordinary Day by Deborah Ellis
Valli picks up coal every day at her home town of Jharia, India. But when she discovers that the family she is staying with is not her real family, she is free to leave their abuse and fend for herself. She hops aboard a coal truck and ends up in Kolkata on the streets. There she “borrows” items that she needs, giving them to others who need them more when she is finished with them. She eats by begging for food and money or doesn’t eat much at all. Valli has one super power, she has feet that feel no pain. So she can stand on hot coals, run across glass, and never feel the wounds. But this is not a real super power, it is leprosy. A kind doctor discovers Valli and offers treatment, though it is some time before Valli is able to trust her. This powerful read speaks to the horrors of poverty, the brutality of life on the streets, and one remarkable young girl who survives it all.
Ellis is known for her powerful writing and this book definitely has that. The book could have become dark and depressing in less skilled hands, but Ellis through the spunky Valli keeps the book moving forward and keeps the viewpoint optimistic. Yet Ellis does not shy away from harsh realities of life on the streets and being an unwanted child in a family. It is Valli who makes this book work so well, her vitality shines on every page.
Ellis handles the subject of leprosy with a delicacy and honesty that is heartwarming. Valli responds to the lepers she meets as “monsters,” but she and the reader learn that there is nothing to fear. Valli sees the people behind their deformities and the reader will too.
A powerful and outstanding book, this tough subject is written at a level that will invite young readers into a world they had never realized existed. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from library copy.
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The Tooth by Avi Slodovnick, illustrated by Manon Gauthier
First published in Canada, this book speaks to the issues of plenty and need. Marissa has to go to the dentist because her tooth hurts from eating too much candy. On the way through the city streets, she notices a man sitting on a grate on the sidewalk to keep warm. Once inside the waiting room, Marissa heads to the window and watches the people passing the man. Some leave coins but most completely ignore him. When Marissa goes in to the dentist, her tooth has to be removed. So she gets it to take home with her, ready for the Toothfairy to get it from under her pillow. But Marissa has another idea and she gives her tooth to the man on the sidewalk so that he can get the coins from the Toothfairy. She also acknowledges that it is just a beginning because he doesn’t have a pillow to put the tooth under.
Slodovnick’s book emphasizes not only the divide between the haves and have nots, but also the way that we ignore needs right under our own feet. Marissa is a naïve character which allows her to ask questions that will interest other children and offer a solution that is simple but also complex. This is a book that gently opens the door to discussion about what a single person can do to make a difference.
Gauthier’s illustrations have a modern edge to them. The city is depicted as a gray towering presence while the main characters pop in color against the gray. The homeless man is also shown in color though the other people on the street are the same gray as the city itself.
A book sure to get children talking, this would work well in a unit about kindness, charity or helping. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy received from Kane Miller.
The Can Man by Laura E. Williams, illustrated by Craig Orback
Tim wants a skateboard for his birthday but his family can’t afford to buy him one right now. So when Tim sees the Can Man collecting cans to earn money, Tim realizes that he can do that to earn money for his skateboard. Tim gathers cans with great energy, finally getting seven bags which should be more than enough for his skateboard. On the final day he can collect cans, it is pouring rain. The Can Man is out with his grocery cart collecting too, though he admits to Tim that he hasn’t found many cans lately. Time explains that he is going to use the can money for a skateboard. When he asks the Can Man what he’s collecting for, he learns that he needs the money for a warm coat. The Can Man helps Tim bring the bags of cans to the redemption center. After redeeming the cans for money though, Tim sees the Can Man walking away and knows just what he should do. He runs outside and gives the Can Man all of the money he made. On his birthday, Tim finds a package outside his door. Inside is a skateboard. Not a brand new one, but one that will work just fine and even has a fresh coat of paint, thanks to the Can Man.
Williams has taken what could have been a didactic moral tale and turned it instead into a fresh story about kindness and community. Her text has a warmth to it that makes the story relatable, bringing the issue of homelessness and poverty directly into a child-eye view. Orback’s illustrations reflect the same honesty as the words. His paintings glow with a warm light and offer a realistic view of the neighborhood the story is set in.
Bravo for a book that brings social concerns to children without lecturing! Appropriate for ages 4-8.
Reviewed from copy received from Lee & Low Books.
Also reviewed by A Psych Mommy and BookDragon.