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Thursday, July 25, 2013

Hold Fast, written by Blue Balliett. Scholastic, 2013. $19.99 ages 10 and up

"She knew the answer, even as she wondered: People get distracted by worries and sadness, and have to struggle to see anything else. They have to work hard to hold on to beauty, to hold fast to dreams and words; like Sum, who seemed to grow more fragile with each passing day. Early knew she had to hold fast for three and dream for them all, at least until Dash came home."

There are four people in Early Pearl's family: her father Dash, her mother Sum, her younger brother Jubie and herself. They are a family that has inherited a love of words, reading and word games from Dash. Together they dream of a home just like the one they often pass as they walk together. For now, they have what they can afford and they live a happy life. Until one day...

On that cold day in January, in a forgotten neighborhood in Chicago:

"At 4:44, the police received a 911 call from a phone booth in the South Side neighborhood of Woodlawn. A muffled voice reported an accident involving a bicyclist and an unmarked delivery truck. When a squad car arrived at the scene minutes later, the street was deserted. There were no witnesses to be found. No one could remember seeing the young man that afternoon, but there were his bike, his groceries and his pocket notebook, which was discovered beneath a nearby car. He had vanished three blocks from home."

That young man is Dash, and his disappearance totally changes the way the three remaining family members live. First, there is the frightening arrival of four thugs who destroy everything they hold dear, take what little money they have and even steal their books. They have nothing left but the clothes they are wearing and one hidden-away and much-loved book: no door on their apartment, no one to help them, and nowhere to go but to the police station and then to a homeless shelter. The author begins with a definition of 'home' and a startling statistic:

"By the end of the 2012 school year, an estimated thirty thousand children in the city of Chicago were without a home. This number does not include those living in the surrounding suburbs, and is thought to be low. What does thirty thousand look like? Count out thirty pennies and pretend that each one has a name. Now make one thousand groups of thirty pennies. These are our children."

It is a powerful story, told eloquently. In careful, beautiful language Blue Balliett shares this family story of love and loss, hope and despair. There is a mystery to be solved, a city to be navigated, the family to be bolstered, and Langston Hughes to help Early through it all, thanks to her father's tutelage and love of Langston's words.

Life in the shelter proves difficult in many ways. We see through Early the family's experience there: the lack of privacy, the long line ups for everything from using the telephone to getting a meal, the noise that happens when so many live in one place, the lack of resources. We also see the goodness of those who try to help with donations of clothing, personal care items, food and time to tutor the children who are falling through the cracks. It is bleak.

Early is a tremendous character, holding fast when hope seems lost, helping her family when her father is not there to do so, and letting readers see that strength and determination make all the difference when faced with adversity. You will not soon forget her!

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