“PAPER THINGS,” by Jennifer Richard Jacobson, Candlewick Press, Feb. 10, 2015, Hardcover, $16.99 (ages 10 and up)
In the past, it wasn’t unusual for me to read entire books in one day. Then I had a baby, and that made finding time to read a little more complicated. Now 15 months old, my daughter loves books — including whatever I’m reading — which means strategically keeping them out of reach whenever she’s around. Last week, however, I had one of those experiences where I didn’t want to put a book down, and I read all 384 pages of Jennifer Richard Jacobson’s “Paper Things” in less than a day.
“Paper Things” is the story of Ari and her older brother, Gage. When their mother died from cancer four years ago, she had two wishes — the siblings would stay together and Ari would attend Carter, a middle school for gifted students.
Following their mother’s death, Ari and Gage went to live with their mom’s friend, Janna. Janna has always been a responsible guardian, but when Gage turns 19, he decides he can no longer live with bossy Jana. And knowing his mother’s last wish, he decides to take Ari with him. The problem is Gage never found them an apartment, and two months after leaving Janna’s house, they’re still crashing with friends or sneaking into a shelter for teens.
Ari loves her brother and wants nothing more than to be with him, but never knowing where they’ll be sleeping or if she’ll have clean clothes to wear to school the next day starts to take a toll. How can Ari keep up on schoolwork, let alone get into a school for gifted students, if she doesn’t have access to a computer or the library is too far away from that night’s crash pad? No one, including Janna and Ari’s friends, know she’s homeless, and keeping the secret is getting harder and harder. Ari doesn’t want to hurt Gage or break her promises to her mother, but something’s got to give and soon.
“Paper Things” is by far one of the best middle-grade books I’ve read this year. Told in Ari’s voice and playing out over a period of about six weeks, “Paper Things” offers a new perspective on homelessness. Throughout the book, Ari considers her living situation as temporary, an in-between homes period. The moment when she realizes she’s truly homeless is eye opening. Her reaction is authentic and powerful.
In “Paper Things,” Jennifer Richard Jacobson has created a world in which anyone could find themselves, and that is truly humbling. Ari’s plucky attitude is contagious and Gage’s perseverance is admirable. The thought of a child facing this sort of situation is heart breaking, and when you step away from the novel, you realize this life is the reality many children face each day.
I hope parents read “Paper Things” with their children and use it as a conversation starter. Too often homelessness is blamed on laziness or some kind of addiction, and while that is true in some cases, the truth is its often something much more subtle that sends a family to the streets. I commend Jennifer for exploring this topic in such an accessible and thoughtful way.
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