Katherine Applegate is kind of a rarity in the world of middle grade fiction: For all of the talk about not pandering or speaking down to kids, it’s not a goal often achieved. Applegate certainly gives it her all, and she’s done a phenomenal job of it, most recently in her 2013 Newbury Medal-winning novel, The One and Only Ivan.
Her latest, Crenshaw, is her hardest-hitting work yet, dealing with the effects of poverty and homelessness on a family with two young children. Jackson, the older of the two kids, is the narrator of Crenshaw, so what we glean is through the eyes of a kid whose parents are trying their best to shield him from reality; of course, Jackson understands considerably more than his parents would like. He’s well aware of the situation they are in, and sees its consequences upon himself and his little sister, and also on their parents. Upon their eviction, they move (back) into their minivan and take to the streets. His father goes back to busking to make money to feed his family, so Jackson takes on the task of making him his signs.
Applegate is a phenomenal writer, with a marvelously deft touch; she walks a very thin line between the realistic and the melodramatic, never allowing things to become too heavy nor too light. This kind of unflinching portrait of struggle is rare and valuable in today’s world of middle grade fiction, and when one comes up it should be embraced. We read Crenshaw to our five year old daughter as a bed time story for a week or so, and she ate it up; what Applegate knows is that kids can take more than we think they can, and they are not afraid of serious subjects.
Ironically, the weakest part of Crenshaw is the titular character, an long-forgotten imaginary friend of Jackson’s who reappears when the family falls back into economic hardship… Though to call the character weak is a bit misleading; he’s just unnecessary. He doesn’t interact with Jackson or his family, really, other than to show up on occasion and mysteriously pass by a window here and there. The publisher’s material grossly overstates his role in and importance to the story, so much so that one might be lead to conclude that the first draft of the novel might not even include the cat; considering the importance of animals in Applegate’s best known earlier work, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that perhaps marketing pushed for a change. He doesn’t help Jackson through the hard times: The family does that, and it’s unfortunate the marketing materials aren’t focusing so heavily on that dynamic, because it’s incredibly important and much needed.
Maybe we’re wrong, but even if we’re not Crenshaw hardly diminishes the power of Applegate’s narrative; he just feels like a perfectly pleasant broach clipped on to an amazing classic black dress, because this is an amazing book, and an important one. For a lot of children, this will be their introduction to the difficult real world, and it would be hard to imagine or more well-written, sensitive and hard-hitting introduction.
Kinderlit.ca requested and received a copy of Crenshaw in exchange for an honest review. Read about our review policy HERE.