A couple of people told me I had to read Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate. Now I have to add my own recommendation, please read this book. This story made a huge impact on me in just a few hours (because that’s all it took to finish this page turner). Ostensibly, a middle grade novel, it brings hard issues front and center in a way that people of all ages can relate to. Poverty and homelessness are not issues often featured in middle grade fiction, but Applegate portrays them masterfully here. A father with a crippling disease too proud to ask for help. A mother underemployed after being laid off. A boy trying to cope. A little sister to be protected from the truth. A true friend. And one imaginary cat named Crenshaw.
Some people cope with tragedy and hardship by looking on the bright side. Jackson’s parents certainly did, as they continually put a positive spin on family hardships through the years. Dad is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and loses his job? An opportunity to work from home! Losing their house and living in their minivan? An adventure in car camping! Fact-minded Jackson, however, was so stressed by the positive spins on these upheavals he created (or did he?) an imaginary friend to help himself cope. But that was all in the past, their family is back on their feet, and staying afloat. Jackson enjoys school and dog-walking with his best friend.
Now though, he has started to notice how things are starting to slide backward. They don’t always have enough food to eat. The landlord has been visiting more often. His parents are selling all of their stuff. And now Crenshaw, his huge imaginary cat is back. Crenshaw says he is there to help Jackson tell the truth, which is easier said than done. Financial distress seeps into all aspects of life of Jackson’s life. It becomes a shameful secret that weighs heavily on him, as he avoids the truth of the situation as long as he can. Eventually his fear and frustration become too much and it is the catharsis of talking to his family and friends that finally helps him find some peace. There isn’t a tidy solution waiting around the corner for Jackson’s family, just a promise and a temporary fix that will have to be all right for now. This is a moving story told with just enough magic to even out the sad realities of life.