Where to begin in addressing the most pressing needs of the children of homeless families, whose members lack necessities most people take for granted?
Do not underestimate the ability of a mystery story to lift and empower even these children, whose access to food, shelter and schooling is tenuous.
Chicago-based author Blue Balliett's new book, "Hold Fast" is a literary mystery set amid the harsh realities of the homeless. Joining the ranks of Calder and Petra, the resourceful preteen heroes of Balliett's previous novels, "Chasing Vermeer," "The Wright 3" and "The Calder Game," and Zoomy in "The Danger Box" is 11-year-old Early Pearl, a whip-smart book-loving girl whose world is upended when her father, Dashel, who works at the Harold Washington Library, goes missing.
A harrowing series of events culminates with a frightening invasion that leaves the Pearls' one-room rental apartment in Woodlawn destroyed and the family on the run. Desperate and destitute, they become embroiled in Chicago's beleaguered shelter system. But not lost. Despite several setbacks, the Pearls are a tightly knit family. Early, especially, never loses faith that her father will return (when others suggest he has abandoned them) and is determined to follow inscrutable clues hidden in words and rhythms to track him down.
But more, she stiffens her resolve never to allow herself to become helpless. "She wouldn't allow that to happen," Balliett writes. "She could see that being helpless in a situation like this was dangerously close to becoming just plain less."
Early is an inspiring role model, but the very children for whom Early might resonate most might not have easy access to the book. Balliett had a much wider audience in mind.
"I wanted to write a book for kids everywhere," she said. "But I also wanted to write a book that would allow kids who are lucky enough to never have imagined this world to have greater sensitivity toward it and understand more about it."
Balliett dramatizes this in a gut-wrenching scene set in Early's new school, where a student dismisses her as a "shelter kid."
"Hold Fast" was "years in the making," Balliett said. Of her books, it took the longest to write and was the most difficult.
She was initially moved to write it when she noticed "more faces on the streets" in the recession's wake. A longtime supporter with her family of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, she was all too familiar with news stories about families losing their jobs, struggling to meet basic needs, and losing their homes.
"But there was practically nothing, nothing, nothing about the kids," she said. "The invisibility was dreadful."
And yet homelessness increasingly has the face of a young child, said Michael Nameche, Chicago Coalition for the Homeless director of development. This year Chicago Public Schools alone are on track to accept 18,000 identified homeless students, a 5 percent increase over the previous year, he said.
Balliett was compelled to volunteer in shelters around the city. "I wanted to get a little closer," she said. "But as a writer, it was difficult. I couldn't pretend to be a neutral (observer). A lot of the shelters, by law, need to protect the families within, and the minute you say you're a writer, they are understandably leery, even if you explain you write books for children. It was quite a journey just getting my toe in the door."
What Balliett observed was heartbreaking, but she saw resiliency in many of the children she spoke with and listened to, and she infused "Hold Fast" with an indomitable spirit as personified by Early and her family.
"I have to say for a long time I didn't know if I could write this book," she said. "But I was so moved by getting a chance to talk to these kids and listen to what they were talking about that I decided what I wanted to do was give them their own mystery in the way my other Chicago characters had their own mysteries. It was so clear they were like kids anywhere. Some of them clearly have had a harder time in life than others, but many of them are doing well in school and excited about life and holding on to their dreams of having a home. I heard that over and over."
Balliett also wanted to address the stigma attached to being homeless, which can be especially hurtful to children. Because of it, children desperately try to pass as not being homeless, Nameche said.
"They do not want to be treated differently," he said. "Their parents will take great care to make sure they're dressed nicely. They are not going to panhandle and draw attention to themselves. The assumption in the absence of a glaring cardboard sign is that someone has a place they can call their own at night."
This added burden kids carry further goaded Balliett to write the book.