Review Detail

Middle Grade Fiction 73
A Hopeful Book About a Tween in Turmoil
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**Spoilers, which are somewhat necessary to understand the whole story.**

Hank is used to taking care of his three year old sister, Bridget (Boo) when their mother Geri is out working or socializing, but when she doesn't come home for a week, things get desperate. He's missing school, and they are out of food. When the landlord pounds on the door and says that eviction proceedings will begin tomorrow, Hank decides to head to visit the only emergency contact he can find; Lou Ann, who was a friend of his grandmother's. His grandmother passed away recently, which has taken away needed support. Finding a bus pass of his mother's, he packs a few things and heads to Rancho Renato. Lou Ann is suprised to see them, but since she runs a day care from her home, agrees to help them. Celia, who works with Lou Ann several days a week, was friends with Hank's mother. Social services is contacted, and everyone works to find Geri. Celia's brother, Ray, is a computer programmer who works from home, and since Lou Ann is not thrilled with having a teenager like Hank around (he's in 7th grade, but tall for his age), Hank starts to spend a lot of time with Ray and his dog, CPU. When Geri can't be found, Lou Ann arranges for Hank to start in the local middle school. Since Lou Ann doesn't seem to like him, Hank goes out of his way to do whatever he can to make her happy, especially since Boo is thriving under her care, learning numbers and letters and becoming potty trained. School actually goes well, and the kids are nice to Hank. Ana in particular takes a liking to him, and invites him to her birthday party. Hank starts playing basketball with Ray, and the coach at school notices his progress, inviting him to try out for the team. Hank is uncertain what the future will bring, so is hesitant to make committments. When he finally finds where his mother is, things are even more uncertain. His mother, who has had a problem with alcohol in the past, was arrested on drunk driving charges, and has to go through rehab before being released. When his mother shows up at school on the day of basketball tryouts, he leaves with her, even though he is apprehensive. He even tells Lou Ann he is taking Boo "for a walk", and is soon driving to Arizona with his mother. When she stops at a gas station and gets drunk, Hank knows that he can't let Boo in the car with her. He calls Lou Ann, but because of her past problems with a teenage son, she forces Hank to go into the foster care system. Hank knows he has made mistakes, but misses the strong and supportive community he had at Lou Ann's. Will he be able to regain it?

Good Points
There is something both compelling and soothing about stepping into the shoes of children who have not been given proper care, and watching as they find a new and supportive community. Hank is such a good kid, and he takes excellent care of Boo. He's resourceful, but knows when he needs help. He love for his mother and grandmother is clear, but his desire to have Boo taken care of is what drives his choices. Lou Ann's feelings that she should take the children in out of her loyalty to their grandmother, but also he dislike of teen agers, are realistic competing emotions that ring true. Ray is a great character who has his own reasons for including Hank and Boo in his life. The best part of this, which Choldenko mentions in the end notes, is that the kids at school are accepting of Hank, even when he can't tell them everything about his life. They are kind, understanding, and help out when they can. Even Tadeo, Ray's nephew who is jealous of Hank for several reasons, is nice to him. When Geri returns, Hank has a major dilemma, and he handles it in a way that I think most 7th graders would handle it. It's his MOM. Of course, he goes with her, but when she puts Boo in danger, he must rely on his new, supportive network. While the most compelling thing in Hank's life is finding his mother and pinning down a living situation, he is also a typical tween, and it was great to see him try out for the basketball team, have an interest in drawing, and go to birthday parties. Even kids in crisis are still kids.

The only weaknesses I can find in this are that Hank is almost too well behaved, and the resolution works out too well. I had rated this as four stars, but considering how much the world needs hopeful stories and examples of good in a world that is often very terrible, I'm moving this to five, because too much optimism should be rewarded in children' literature. The current trend to show tweens how terrible life can be cannot be helping with the rise of anxiety in children.

This is probably my favorite of Choldenko's books so far. It's a great choice for readers who like hopeful, sometimes funny realistic fiction, and goes well with other modern books about children in foster care, including Galante's Strays Like Us, Winston's Shark Teeth, Moranville's Forget-Me-Not Blue, O'Shaughnessy's Lasagna Means I Love You, Bailey's Snow Foal, and Farr's Pavi Sharma's Guide to Going Home.
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