#MiddleGradeMonday: Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate

crenshawIn her first novel since winning the Newbery Medal, Katherine Applegate delivers an unforgettable and magical story about family, friendship, and resilience.

Jackson and his family have fallen on hard times. There’s no more money for rent. And not much for food, either. His parents, his little sister, and their dog may have to live in their minivan. Again.

Crenshaw is a cat. He’s large, he’s outspoken, and he’s imaginary. He has come back into Jackson’s life to help him. But is an imaginary friend enough to save this family from losing everything?

Beloved author Katherine Applegate proves in unexpected ways that friends matter, whether real or imaginary.

Being homeless is one of the greatest fears a child will have, and can rank up there with the loss of a parental figures on the anxiety scale. In fact, recent statistics state that “On any given day, at least 800,000 people are homeless in the United States, including about 200,000 children in homeless families.” so this is a very realistic fear for children living in poverty. Applegate, fresh off her award-winning novel, The One and Only Ivan, has created a touching and honest look at poverty and homelessness from a child’s perspective that manages to avoid the common platitudes.

Jackson doesn’t want to remember the last time he and his parents had to live in their car, but the signs that history may be repeating itself are just too hard to ignore. Children facing homelessness are under tremendous stress, so it’s a natural time for Jackson to begin to see his imaginary friend Crenshaw again. Crenshaw isn’t your normal invisible friend – he’s cat, and a large one. He prefers purple jelly beans, and bubble baths, and his appearance is a nudge for Jackson to realize that all is not right with his family. Jackson broke my heart; he’s described at one point as an “old soul”, while he comments that “[s]ometimes I feel like the most grown-up one in the house.”. All he wants is for his parents to talk to him honestly about what is happening, but they continue to put on a determinedly happy face for their children.

“I’ve been meaning to ask you why you’re so much bigger. You weren’t this big when I was seven.”

“You need a bigger friend now,” said Crenshaw. 

Crenshaw may a means for Jackson to accept that things are not going well in his family, but for me, the relationship between Jackson and his parents is most touching. I completely understood their need to protect him from worry, but it was clear that Jackson was truly a mini-adult, often charged with taking care of the day-to-day things simply because his parents were either working or looking for work. It’s hard for parents to accept that their children are getting older and more mature, and Jackson is certainly wise beyond his years. At times, I wanted to shake his parents and remind him that worry only builds when there isn’t information to dispel it.

I appreciated that Applegate didn’t talk down to her readers. Her honest portrayal of how good people can simply find themselves in circumstances where they cannot ‘get by’ any longer is unflinching and clear. Applegate is able to gently mention the father’s illness and the bad luck that causes them to reduce their circumstances without assigning blame – sometimes it’s just life. As Jackson’s dad puts it:

“Life is messy. It’s complicated. It would be nice if life were always like this.” He drew an imaginary line that kept going up and up. “But life is actually a lot more like this.” He made a jiggly line that went up and down like a mountain range. “You just have to keep trying.” 

We often feel like we need to shield our kids from the bad things in life, but that’s not always a good thing. Exposing them to the bad things teaches them empathy, gives them coping strategies and allows them to ask questions to alleviate their worries. Crenshaw may seem like a tough book to encourage kids to read, but I think it’s an important read, for both parents and kids.

Crenshaw is published by Feiwel & Friends and an ARC was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. It is available for purchase now from your favourite indie bookseller, Indigo, Amazon or Kobo. ISBN: 9781250043238, 256 pages.