I had been hearing buzz about this book for months, and when I couldn’t get my hands on an ARC, I pre-ordered it so that I would have a copy the day it released. Sure enough, on it’s “Book Birthday” my package was waiting for me on the doorstep. I grabbed my book and headed for my hammock and crawled right into the pages of this novel.
I met Jackson, who is beginning 5th grade, and wants to be a scientist. He wants to stick with facts and that becomes a problem when his imaginary friend from 1st grade seems to be back in his life. Crenshaw, was a black and white kitten when he first befriended Jackson, now he is a cat who seems to have grown in size and wisdom as Jackson has grown up.
Crenshaw initially appeared at one of the darkest times in Jackson’s life. His family (his mother, father, and little sister) was homeless, and living in their car. It’s no coincidence that Crenshaw resurfaces when Jackson’s family is again in dire straits and about to be evicted. Jackson is tired of having no sense of control in his life- Crenshaw comforts his friend, but we wonder how he could possibly help him.
This book is incredibly important for so many children and families who are facing food insecurity, joblessness, homelessness, health issues, and the stresses that poverty can bring. It puts human faces to those numbers that are thrown around by politicians. It shows how easily any family could move from ‘middle class’ to poor without much control over the situation. It reminds us that we may all be one illness, accident, or incident away from financial insecurity and we cannot easily dismiss the poor in our communities as “takers”.
This book reveals this family’s hardship through the eyes of a child who wants to know the truth, but realizes the burden that this knowledge can bring. Jackson describes it, “ I couldn’t control anything.It was like driving a bumper car without a steering wheel. I keep getting slammed and I just had to sit there and hold on tight.“We see Jackson’s parents striving to be positive and self-reliant, and feel Jackson’s frustration grow when they are going to bed hungry, selling their possessions, and are being uprooted from school and friends. We see specifically how a family survives living in their car, and trying to get back on their feet-and realize just how hard it is to “pull yourself up from your bootstraps”.
I live in a state where our governor is on a welfare crusade to push people off of food stamps, and TANF (temporary assistance for needy families). These people have been portrayed as lazy leeches every time he gets up on his soap box. Sadly his message strikes a chord for too many others who don’t want to see poverty as the complex issue it is, or are in denial that they may one day find themselves walking in those shoes.
We need books like CRENSHAW to humanize the people who are most vulnerable and in need. Jackson’s parents were both working until his father developed Multiple Sclerosis and could no longer work. His mother was laid off as a music teacher and they quickly found their family in crisis. They certainly weren’t lazy. They definitely weren’t leeches. They were unlucky.
We need books like CRENSHAW to help us hang onto the magic in our lives. Jackson isn’t sure if Crenshaw is real, there are so many coincidences and his dog (Aretha) seems to see/sense him. When he finally confides in his friend, Marisol she doesn’t tease or disbelieve. She simply advises, “Jackson, just enjoy the magic while you can, okay?” Sometimes we are quick to dismiss the magic in our lives, explain it away or deny it. CRENSHAW can help us to reflect on what magic we might have in our lives that we are dismissing.
There’s no magic to solve Jackson’s family’s problems. But there is magic in the unconditional love of family and friends that can help us to persevere. CRENSHAW offers us some of that magic. It is one of those windows and mirrors books. A window that can help us build empathy, compassion, and understanding as we look into the lives of families who are struggling. A mirror for students in our classrooms who see themselves reflected in this story and may feel less alone, less other.
The world needs CRENSHAW right now. Our schools need CRENSHAW right now. Your students need CRENSHAW…right now.