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Middle-school librarians Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan prove that two heads are better than one when it comes to discussing YA and children's books

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Thursday, June 20, 2013 7:40 am
Hold Fast by Blue Balliett
Posted by: Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan

Hold FastCindy: I must be one of the only youth librarians who has not read any of Blue Balliett’s novels. I was aware of the buzz of Chasing Vermeer and its starred review in the pages of Booklist, and I purchased each new book as it published so my middle schoolers would have it. Some of our elementary school teachers must be reading some of Balliett’s books to their classes and my 6th graders seek them out and read the rest. Books that are already circulating fall lower on my to-read list, sometimes to my own detriment.  Hold Fast (Scholastic 2013) arrived, though, and the premise intrigued me and the shame of not having read anything by this popular author tugged at me, so I dug in. I’m so glad I did.

The Pearl family loves words.

Dashel Pearl offered words to his kids from the day they were born. A man who loved language almost as much as color or taste or air, he explained to his daughter, Early, that words are everywhere and for everyone.

“They’re for choosing, admiring, keeping, giving. They are treasures of inestimable value,” Early heard him say many times. Even when she didn’t know what inestimable meant, she understood from the careful way he said it.”

The Pearl family reads aloud together, they play word games, they value the dictionary, and they create their own word books. They especially love their treasured copy of The First Book of Rhythms by Langston Hughes.  ”It’s a No Sticky Fingers treasure for us to have always.” More treasured than any of these things, though, is the dream they hold fast to…the dream to one day own their own home.

The family is so close that they call themselves by an amalgamation of their four names smashed closely together: Dashsumearlyjubie. But just as readers are falling in love with this close-knit family and their dreams, Dash disappears. Suddenly four become three and everything changes. The apartment is broken into and ransacked and Sum and the two children must flee into the night and have no recourse but to head to a family homeless shelter. I cannot think of another youth book that sheds light on the shelter experience. We have books about foster care and about homelessness…but shelters? I’ve not read one. And that setting is where this book shines. Early’s portrayal of what life is like for an 11-year-old whose life has been uprooted will be eye-opening for many young readers, and all too familiar to others. I cannot wait to booktalk this for that reason alone. We have students at my middle school who travel on public transportation from the Holland city mission and Balliett reports that the statistics at the end of the 2012 school year were 30,000 homeless children in Chicago proper…a number that is certainly low. Thirty thousand homeless children. It makes our hears ache to think of it. How do you hold fast to dreams when you are a homeless child?

Yes, there’s a mystery of what happened to Dash that motivates Early to use her sleuthing skills to figure out, and the book has some problems as Ilene Cooper points out in her starred review linked above. Elizabeth Bird gives a detailed explanation of some of the issues she has with the novel over at Fuse8.  But it’s the look at life and how quickly our circumstances can change and how we react that made me fall in love with this book. Words are important. Don’t miss the ones that form this story. I can’t wait to learn what my 6th graders think of this one. Luckily, I don’t have to wait as my first summer book club meets in a few hours and I can test the words there.

Lynn:  I liked this book for all the reasons Cindy did and, like Cindy,  I had some quibbles with the mystery that gets wrapped up in a very Agatha Christie-summary sort of way.  But, also like Cindy, I really wasn’t too bothered by that. What stole the show for me was the depiction of this family and their circumstances and the portrayal of homeless shelters and the effect on those who find themselves there.

Authors often remove adults from the story, especially a mystery, so that the kid protagonists can solve the mystery, deal with the problems or experience the danger.  Balliett does that in this story by first making the father the center of the mystery and then describing Summer’s increasing depression after the family finds themselves in a shelter.  It isn’t uncommon for children to have to take on adult roles when a parent isn’t functioning well and I thought the picture of Early’s resilience and resolve was one of the real strengths of this story.  Summer is a good mother who does works hard for her children but who struggles under horrifying circumstances.  As an adult, I wanted her to step up just as I recognized how debilitating the circumstances were.  All of us in schools recognize Early as the child we often see, mature beyond her/his years, holding the family together.  I think kids will appreciate Early’s strength but not question her need to take charge.  Balliett’s plot device works both overtly and subtly and reveals an issue that does occur.

Like Cindy I loved the love of language, words, books and libraries that is a central core of the story.  I hope there will be some readers who will seek out Langston Hughes poetry for further reading but even if they don’t, a whole new gaggle of readers will recognize and appreciate his work.  Hold Fast may not be a perfect book but I think it is a book that young readers will love and learn from.


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