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Homeless but not hopeless

CHILDREN’S BOOKS OF THE YEAR—FICTION | A Duet for Home owes much to author’s experiences

Homeless but not hopeless
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Juniperi (June) Yang expected her new home in the Bronx to be some kind of ­subsidized apartment. But the address the Emergency Assistance Unit gave her family led to Huey House, a sad-looking building miles from her Chinatown neighborhood. There June and her little sister and their mother will share a single room, a communal cafeteria, and too many rules. In other words, it’s a homeless shelter. After her dad’s death in a bicycle accident and her mother’s descent into depression, could the situation be any worse?

So begins A Duet for Home (Clarion Books 2022)—our Children’s Book of the Year for fiction—by Karina Yan Glaser.

June’s first encounter with the Huey House occupants leaves her covered in cranberry juice, compliments of the shelter’s resident pranksters. Tyrell and Jeremiah aren’t mean, just bored—Tyrell especially, after almost three years at Huey House with little resolution. June dreads a similar fate for her family, but she will discover hidden graces, unexpected friendships, and reasons to reclaim her beloved viola and make some music.

Glaser’s first book, The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street, was WORLD’s top selection five years ago (see “Home is where the love is,” Feb. 17, 2018). Like the Vanderbeekers series, A Duet for Home owes much to personal experience: After college in New York City, Glaser’s first job was serving homeless families in transitional housing. “The numbers of children living in shelters was staggering then as now,” she recalls in an email interview. Their many challenges included “navigating complicated ­family dynamics, being affected by the constantly changing regulations and government bureaucracy, and trying to get to school on time.”

All these challenges confront June, a character who shares at least one important connection with the author. “When I was in sixth grade, my father moved to another country and I didn’t hear from him for seventeen years,” Glaser says. Her mother, like June’s, isolated herself, leaving Glaser to struggle alone with feelings of dislocation and abandonment.

Homelessness still concerns Glaser, especially as she’s seen little change in the last 20 years: “I fear that we end up going in circles with this issue.” Change for the better must begin with genuine empathy for people in these difficult situations, she says, and hopes her novel will help young readers understand the reality of shelter life. Perhaps even feel called to volunteer at a food bank or soup kitchen, or at least offer eye contact and a smile to people who feel ignored.

A Duet for Home is honest about the obstacles of bureaucracy and the unwillingness of some people to help themselves. But as her young characters discover their own power to bring about change, their lives take a turn toward the better. Homelessness is not hopelessness.

Fiction runners-up

Haven: A Small Cat’s Big Adventure

Megan Wagner Lloyd

(Candlewick 2022)

A single “mew” at the cottage door won a cozy home for an abandoned kitten, after Ma Millie took her in and named her Haven. But with the approach of winter, Ma Millie’s health takes a serious turn, and little Haven must go to “town” —wherever that is—to find help. Her quest begins with a frightening encounter with a natural predator, which soon becomes an unlikely ally. The ensuing journey is laced with danger but also pierced with moments of beauty. This realistic tale includes some sad elements but shines against a natural background with friendship, loyalty, and self-­sacrifice. Ages 7-10

The Ogress and the Orphans

Kelly Barnhill

(Algonquin 2022)

When the Ogress moves into an abandoned house outside Stone-in-the-Glen, she isn’t welcome. Even the kindest of her neighbors are so trained in suspicion by their demagogic mayor that they never guess who leaves the home-baked pies and home-grown vegetables on their ­doorsteps at night. The disappearance of a child from the local orphanage creates a crisis, fixing blame on the obvious target. But in time the mayor will reveal his true nature and the people will clearly see the difference between hypocritical talk and ­sincere action: “We can choose to be filled with suspicion or we can choose to accept grace.” Ages 10-15

The Star That Always Stays

Anna Rose Johnson

(Holiday House 2022)

Growing up on Beaver Island in Lake Michigan, Norvia treasures the ­stories her maternal grandfather told of their Ojibwe ancestry, a heritage her white father ­values considerably less. But when her parents divorce in 1914, Norvia’s mother moves the family to Boyne City. Soon Mother becomes engaged to a Mr. Ward, an elder in the local Presbyterian church. Torn between cultures, parents, and ethnicities, the 15-year-old girl struggles to adapt and fit in, but finds a lodestar in Christian faith. As in ­similar classic novels like Anne of Green Gables, touches of humor leaven a story of growth and grace. Ages 12 & up

When Winter Robeson Came

Brenda Woods

(Nancy Paulsen Books 2022)

Twelve-year-old Eden eagerly welcomes her cousin Winter from Mississippi, but Winter has more than a family visit in mind. He’s looking for his father, who disappeared shortly after moving to Los Angeles for work. Eden joins the search, which begins with some promising leads. But racial tensions, breaking out in the Watts riots of 1965, threaten to derail their quest as skin color draws automatic suspicion from the police. A series of coincidences, attributed to God, lead the story to a hopeful conclusion. Eden’s love of music strikes a redemptive note and sets a melodic tone for this verse novel. Ages 10-14

Please read the next page in this issue’s special Children’s Books of the Year section: “There’s no place like home

Janie B. Cheaney Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD's annual Children's Book of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.


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