Joan Bauer has found a formula that works and works well: a tweenage or teenage girl finds herself in an unfortunate situation, often due to unfortunate family dynamics, but through her optimism, hard work, and the help of at least one mentor/helper, she finds a happy ending. Almost Home is no different in this regard, but I think that this might be the most dire circumstances a girl has yet to find herself in: Sugar Mae Cole is homeless, with a “good” mother who cannot cope with their circumstances and is therefore admitted to a psychiatric hospital. Of course, there’s also the deadbeat dad who has a gambling (and possibly alcohol) addiction. Sugar Mae and her mother end up in a homeless shelter, and finally, Sugar Mae comes under the sheltering wings of two very good foster parents (after a short and unhappy stint in a group home). Through it all, Sugar Mae maintains contact with her old sixth grade English teacher, a rather out-of-the-box fellow who cares genuinely for her and roots for her through cyberspace. The story has the requisite happy ending, but not until Sugar Mae’s mother, a wannabe genteel Southern belle, stands up for herself to her ex-husband and begins to stretch her tenuous wings outside of a homeless shelter as a fully-employed and respectable woman.
If this sounds like a dark and somber story, it’s not. Well, it is, but it’s not. Bauer manages to keep what should be a very dark and depressing tale brimful of hope. I have to say again that this particular situation is the worst that I remember from all of her books that I’ve read, which is most of them. Yes, I found myself weeping on occasion over the dismal outlook of Sugar Mae’s life, but this is possibly because I’ve had dealings with quite a few children myself (through friends and relatives who are foster parents) who have been in situations similar to Sugar Mae’s, and it is rough. While most of the children I’ve come into contact with rarely have a resolution quite as positive as Sugar’s, Bauer leaves us with the feeling that things will not be perfect, but there is always hope. This is how it should be.
Almost Home is a 2012 Cybils finalist in the middle grade fiction category, and I can see why. Not only is it a touching and realistic story, it is also beautifully written. Sugar Mae’s distinctive voice shines through on every page through her thoughts, her interactions with others, the poetry she writes, and the emails she sends. It really made me think about homelessness in a new way. It also has Bauer‘s trademark quiet humor:
Helen pours the iced tea into glasses. She puts a sugar bowl on the table, milk, and packets of sugar substitutes.
Please. In my mind there is no substitute. (256)
Bauer also includes a bit of librarian humor in this story, which is something I always appreciate:
“Are you all right?” the librarian asked me.
“My grandpa died.”
“Oh, my dear.” She picked up a vase with fresh flowers from the return desk and handed it to me. “These are for you.”
Being this was a library, I wasn’t sure if I had to return them, so I figured I’d better ask.
“They’re for you to keep,” she said.
That’s something coming from a librarian. (14)
The only weaknesses I can see in this story are that there’s almost too much going on in it toward the end in terms of extraneous characters and issues (none of which I’ve mentioned here) and that it is somewhat formulaic. Of course, that’s not really a weakness unless this work is considered in light of Bauer‘s others. I think this would make a good winning pick for the Cybils because I can imagine that it would have lots of kid appeal. Of all the Cybils finalists I’ve read thus far, this one is my favorite. I will definitely be handing Joan Bauer‘s novels off to my girls in a few years when they’re ready to begin tackling issues-driven stories. Highly Recommended. (Viking, 2012)
Other Cybils finalists I’ve read and reviewed: