Author: Blue Balliett
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Genre: Realistic Fiction, Mystery
Themes: Family, Poverty, Homelessness, Reading
Age Range: 4th through 8th Grade
Summary: from Goodreads
Where is Early's father? He's not the kind of father who would disappear. But he's gone . . . and he's left a whole lot of trouble behind.
As danger closes in, Early, her mom, and her brother have to flee their apartment. With nowhere else to go, they are forced to move into a city shelter. Once there, Early starts asking questions and looking for answers. Because her father hasn't disappeared without a trace. There are patterns and rhythms to what's happened, and Early might be the only one who can use them to track him down and make her way out of a very tough place.
Run, do not walk, and get this book! Balliett's writing is always magical-the way she uses language to create not just evocative settings and believable characters but truly beautiful prose is astonishing. Both of the novels I've read by her have been such a treasure of beautiful language usage! And while the language itself is worth reading the book for, the plot is nothing to sneeze at either. Balliett deals with issues of homelessness and poverty in such a delicate, compassionate way, making very difficult topics accessible to child readers.
Early as narrator is frank and honest, at times wise, other times naive about the way the world works. The one unshakable fact of her life is her father's love and loyalty. There is not one minute of his disappearance that she is not sure that he would come home if he were able. She throws herself into solving the mystery of his kidnapping with a fervor that is only matched by her desire to help her mother survive their present circumstances. When her family ends up in a homeless shelter, Early's mother has a hard time holding fast to her hope, but Early is there to comfort her and prod her into keeping herself together for the sake of her younger brother Jubie. Balliett's description of the shelter is honest and forthright, neither exaggerated or minimized. The people at the shelter do the best they can to provide warmth, food, and help to the many families that come to them, but as the revolving door of characters moving into and out of Early's life at the shelter shows, working with the homeless population in Chicago is a more daunting task than a few hot meals and a bed for the night can accomplish.
While the most compelling parts of the book for me were the ways that the life of the family was affected by homelessness, there is actually a really good mystery in here as well. The people at the shelter may think that Early's father just took off, as so many men seem to do, but Early knows he would never abandon them, and she is right-there are some nefarious characters that have taken advantage of her father's good nature. The big reveal is made even more powerful by the knowledge that the terrible situation that Early and her mother and brother found themselves in is almost over.
There are so many things to love about this book. Balliett uses the poetry of Langston Hughes as a frame for the events in the story, and the family shares a love of words and reading and learning that touched me. Early's parents do all the right things, but still find it so difficult to lift themselves out of poverty. Balliett's characters put the lie to the assertion that people live in poverty because they lack the ability to plan for the future, or that they don't value education enough, or that they don't work hard enough. In no fair world should someone as bright and capable as Early's family be denied the same opportunities that those who come from privilege already have.