Almost Home

by Joan Bauer
ages: 10+
First sentence: “Mr. Bennett walked into room 212 carrying a plastic bag.”
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Having been on a Middle Grade Fiction Round 1 Cybils panel a few times, I am quite familiar with dead moms, absent moms, crazy moms, overbearing moms, controlling moms, and all sorts of other bad moms. Kids have had to deal with homelessness, with abuse, with death. Which they usually do with varying degrees of success.

But never before have I read a character with so much down-to-earth pluck and good-natured spirit as I have in Sugar Mae Cole.

Her father — she calls him Mr. Leeland — is a gambler, and comes with pretty much all that baggage that that entails. He’s taken out loans against the house, gotten involved with less-than-respectable characters, and is absent more than he is home. Sugar’s been basically raised by her mother, Reba, and her grandfather, King Cole (pretty awesome name if you ask me). But, King died a year back, and it’s been increasingly more difficult for Reba and Sugar to make ends meet. Until they don’t anymore, and the lose the house.

The bounce around from living with family to living in a shelter while Reba tries to find a job. Then she gets a sort-of lead on a job in Chicago, so on a whim the two of them head up there. Things — of course — don’t go the way they are supposed to, and Reba has a mental breakdown. Sugar is shuffled off into foster care, and Reba’s in an institution while they figure out the best way to rebuild their lives.

I should mention the dog on the cover: his name is Shush and he’s adorable. He’s more a metaphor than an actual character: he’s been abused by a previous owner, and is insecure about his place in the world. But, through love and acceptance, Sugar helps him gain the confidence he needs to be a courageous dog. Which is a parallel to Sugar’s experience: she has a difficult time trusting, but through a loving foster family and an amazing teacher, she blossoms.

As I said to begin with, this novel rests squarely on Sugar’s shoulders, and she carries it superbly.


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