I just finished Parked earlier today and there are so many things I want to say about it! This one was not on my radar at all until it showed up as a suggestion from someone in the Mock Newbery group I belong to on Goodreads. I had a hard time finding it–our local library didn’t have it; I found it in a neighboring library system. It came in just before the Stay-at-Home order here in Minnesota. This book really blew me away in structure, content, character and quality of writing. It was so much more than I expected.
Twelve-year-old Jeanne Ann and her mother, Joyce, are living in a crummy apartment in Chicago where her mother works as a cook in a restaurant where she is overworked and ill-treated. Jeanne Ann spend most of her time at the local library (where she has made a special friend of the librarian) or simply reading as many books as she can get her hands on. At the beginning of our story, Joyce is fed up with her treatment at work and their living conditions so they sell off most of their possessions to buy a used orange van and drive to San Francisco where they believe there is a job waiting for Joyce and they will be able to stay with a former co-worker. This turns out not to be the case and, having spent all their money on the van and the trip to San Francisco, Jeanne Ann and her mother find themselves living in the orange van parked on a public street in a wealthier San Francisco neighborhood by the Bay.
Twelve-year-old Cal lives with his mother in a big house across the street from the line of vans (now including Jeanne Ann’s). He is a sweet, sensitive boy who sees the people in this homeless situation, is deeply concerned, wants to help and doesn’t know how. When he tries to call attention to the situation the adults around him label his behavior as “acting out” and he finds himself helpless to articulate his true motivations and concerns.
Both kids are frustrated in their circumstances and by the really BIG feelings they are having in their situations. Cal notices when Jeanne Ann and her mother park their van at the head of the line at the beginning of the summer. What begins as Cal trying to figure out how to help a situation in general develops into a deeper friendship between the two children. Like all worthwhile relationships, theirs is fraught with missteps, anger, embarrassment and joy. It is a difficult journey for both Cal and Jeanne Ann, but one that both come to appreciate and value.
The story is told in alternating narration between Jeanne Ann and Cal. This structure allows Ms Svetcov to expose the blind spots of each child’s experience while at the same time giving the most complete, realistic description of thoughts, feelings and circumstances for a homeless child/family that I have ever encountered in a middle-grade novel. Much of the story is heartbreaking–the moment when Jeanne Ann, who has been waiting to shower until she can do so in their own apartment, realizes–when she and Cal are in public–that she smells terrible and there is no apartment in her immediate future and the scene where she sells her beloved books for money to buy food is wrenching.
Is the ending a little unrealistic, given the more gritty realism of the rest of the story? Well, maybe a little. However, I think it’s important to bear in mind that the target audience for Parked is middle grade students who still need, perhaps, a little more closure than real life sometimes offers us.
Jeanne Ann is angry with her mother for putting them in this position, yet loves her mother deeply and feels guilty for feeling angry. Cal struggles to navigate his intense desire to help Jeanne Ann while simultaneously feeling overwhelmed by the problem and unable to think of what, exactly, he can do to make a difference. Both of these situations are familiar and easily accessible for young readers who are struggling with the same types of issues and overwhelming thoughts and emotions–particularly at this time in the world.
Parked provides an extraordinary opportunity to initiate discussions with young people about managing overwhelming situations and feelings, the homeless issue (of whom the majority in the US are single mothers with children), and how we can each find a way to be part of a solution. Parked is about finding your way through, forging ahead despite making mistakes along the way, learning how to offer help while preserving the recipient’s dignity and how to accept help when it’s offered constructively and with true compassion.
I would not hesitate to read this aloud to a 5th or 6th grade classroom or at home. I highly recommend Parked as a middle grade read–or for any adult who relishes a well-crafted middle-grade novel! Regardless of whether or not it wins any awards (which I hope it does) I want to put Parked into as many hands as I possibly can!