Monday, October 10, 2016

Hold Fast

Hold Fast
by Blue Balliett
Recommended Ages: 11+

To most people, they're the Pearl family. To each other, they are Dashsumearlyjubie. That's the unit comprising Dashel, the father; Summer, the mother; Early, their 11-year-old daughter; and Jubilation, their preschool-age son. The fourness of the Pearls is important to this close-knit Chicago family. Then, one cold January day, Dash disappears on his way home from work at the Harold Washington Public Library, the largest library facility in the world. His bicycle, some groceries, and a notebook are found. A few days later, four masked home-invaders destroy or steal everything the Pearls own, leaving the remaining Pearls homeless, penniless, and tormented by worry about whether Dash will ever come back and turn their threeness back into four.

The spell of homelessness that follows for Sum, Early, and Jubie takes a gradual toll on their mental and physical health. The sense that being homeless has not only deprived them of a home, but also made them less, saps Sum's hope and willpower. Conditions in the homeless shelter put Jubie in the hospital. The way students at the nearby school treat Early provokes her to quit attending. They are always standing in lines. They have to eat, sleep, and wash when they are told. They are surrounded at close quarters, night and day, by people who are only little farther along in the process of losing hope. And worst of all, their situation makes them invisible. Being homeless makes it hard for Sum to find a job, find a daycare for Jubie so she can work, find a listening ear at the Police Department who is interested in helping them find Dash, rather than accusing him of a crime they know he would never commit.

Yet Jubie finds a spark of hope in the poetry and prose of the great African-American writer Langston Hughes. She tries to figure out the message her father's last scribblings in his notebook might be trying to send her. She reaches out to a teacher who inspired him when he was a boy. And she goes to the library to do some digging. Little by little, she uncovers a conspiracy connecting a traffic in used books with the greatest diamond heist in world history - a discovery that, if her father is still alive, puts him in greater danger than ever. Meantime, she also sets wheels in motion that will bring hope to many other homeless families.

This is a standalone example of the type of book Blue Balliett perfected in her Calder Pillay mysteries, including Chasing Vermeer, The Wright 3, The Calder Game, and the only one I haven't read yet, The Danger Box. They are highly unusual, thoughtful mystery-thrillers that combine experimental approaches to children's education, underappreciated works of literature and art, in-depth research of real-world events (such as the 2003 Antwerp diamond heist - which, in our reality, has never been solved), and smart, brain-teasing, vocabulary-building, kid-friendly puzzles. They depict emotionally gripping family problems. They conjure urgent suspense. And they tickle the reader's social conscience. They are superbly original blends of art and entertainment, from an author who has taught at the same University of Chicago Laboratory Schools where Langston Hughes worked for a while. In this book especially, she pays tribute to the courage it takes to "hold fast to dreams," as Hughes put it.

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