Recommended Age, Grade, and Reading Levels
- Age: 12 to 15
- Grade: 7 to 10
- Reading age: 12 to 15
When her mom is diagnosed with terminal cancer, Jayce searches for her estranged father, hoping he can fix everything.
Jayce Loewen has had to take on a lot of responsibility over the years. Her single mom works two jobs and long hours, leaving Jayce in charge of her four-year-old sister most of the time. When her mom is diagnosed with cancer, Jayce decides to track down her long-absent father in the hope that he will be able to make everything okay again.
Looking for her dad was one thing, but when she actually finds him, Jayce is in for a real shock. When everything in her life seems to be going wrong, Jayce has to figure out who her family really is, and how to live with the possibility of losing the person she loves most.
About the author
Kristine Scarrow has worked with the Saskatchewan Foster Families Association and now teaches writing and journaling as a healing art. She is the author of Throwaway Girl, which the Winnipeg Free Press called a “darkly realistic” story of the failings of the foster child system. Kristine lives in Saskatoon.
- Short-listed, Saskatchewan Young Readers' Choice Awards — Snow Willow Award
Excerpt: If This Is Home (by (author) Kristine Scarrow)
“Jayce, can you feed your sister for me before you go?” my mom calls from her bed. She’s lying down again instead of going to work. She’s been missing a lot of work lately. I sigh and drop my backpack to the floor. I was just about to leave for school, and if I don’t get out of here soon, I’ll end up being late. Again.
“Can I have some Corn Pops?” my little sister, Joelle, asks. She’s giving me her sad puppy-dog face.
“No. We don’t have any,” I tell her.
“Toast with jam?”
“No, we’re out of bread.”
“Eggs?” she replies hopefully.
I glance into the fridge and survey its contents. Ketchup, mustard, butter, cheese slices, a jug of Kool-Aid, a bruised apple, and a half a head of lettuce that has turned colour and is sitting in a pool of brown liquid. There is also a litre of milk that I take out and shake to feel how full it is, but there are only a few sips left.
I open the cupboard door, hoping to find food that I know wasn’t there yesterday, but all I see are the same items. Soda crackers, a few cans of chicken noodle soup, and spaghetti noodles. The thought of having spaghetti again is almost too much for me. It’s pretty much all we’ve been eating for weeks now. With butter and salt and pepper, or with melted cheese slices on top, or mixed with ketchup. I am sick to death of spaghetti noodles. As much as I know Joelle dislikes them, I spot a bag of rolled oats. A perfect breakfast.
“Yuck. I hate that stuff,” Joelle says when she sees the bag of oats.
“Oatmeal is good for you,” I tell her. “Besides, it keeps you fuller longer. That’s a good thing.”
Having something to keep our bellies fuller longer is a good thing right now, because lately Mom’s paycheques haven’t been enough to keep us afloat. Her jobs at the supermarket and the diner never paid much, but Mom’s take-home pay is even less now that she has been missing so many shifts.
“You gotta put sugar and milk in it,” Joelle pouts.
“Yes, Ellie,” I reply, calling her by her nickname. “I will.”
I pour some water into the bowl of oats and pop it into the microwave for a minute and a half. When I pull the bowl out, it is hot. The mixture is thick and steamy, and I sprinkle some sugar on it from the can on the kitchen counter.
“Just a little bit of milk, okay, Ellie? We have to make it last.”
“It looks like puke,” Joelle says, staring down at the lump of oatmeal in front of her.
“It looks perfectly fine,” I say sternly.
“I can’t eat this,” she says, finally, pushing the bowl away.
“Joelle Marie, you will eat it!”
“I want something else. Please, can I have something else?” Joelle pouts, tears forming in her eyes. I’m so frustrated that she won’t eat. What does she think this place is? A restaurant? And why can’t she just eat what’s put in front of her? Doesn’t she know that there is nothing else?
Of course, she doesn’t. Mom has always been able to provide for us; it’s only in the last few months that we’ve struggled to get food on the table. At first Mom tried to shield us from the reality of our situation, pretending that everything was fine. She’d bring home leftovers from the diner and play it off like we were getting a real treat — which they would have been, if they were hot and fresh. Soggy french fries, dried-out garlic toast, and limp salads only felt like a treat the first time around.
Ellie doesn’t need to know the truth. So I am doing the same thing as Mom, pretending that everything is okay, that we’re like any other family.
“How about some crackers?” I offer.
“Okay,” Ellie agrees.
I pull out a handful of crackers from the plastic sleeve and hand them to her. I pour the remainder of the milk into a cup, but there’s only about an inch of milk left. I hate the fact that I have nothing else to give her. Now I know how Mom feels.
Ellie hums to herself happily and bites into the crackers. I spoon the oatmeal into my mouth, not wanting to waste anything. It’s thick and pasty, but the sugar gives it enough flavour.
It’s only the third week of May. That means there is still a week left before Mom’s next payday. This won’t be enough food until then. We have a few days’ worth, tops.
“Ellie has had breakfast,” I say to my mom. I peek my head through her bedroom door. Mom’s long, thin figure is barely visible through the blankets, except for the fan of blond hair splayed across the pillow. She’s always had long, gorgeous hair that hangs in natural loose curls. I wasn’t as lucky. I was blessed with straight, mousy-brown hair that has no style at all.
“Thanks, J.J.,” Mom whispers. She doesn’t even move or look up at me.
“Whatever,” I mutter. “Don’t forget about lunch for her.” I’ve been feeling a lot like the parent these days.
I’ve always been the one to take care of Joelle at night while Mom works. She’s often had more than one job to keep us afloat, and so she’s had to work long hours. She usually works five days a week at the supermarket from eight o’clock until five o’clock, and then four nights a week at the neighbourhood diner from six o’clock until eleven o’clock. Even when mom is working every shift, though, we seem to barely have enough to keep a roof over our heads. By the time rent is covered, food is bought, and utilities are paid, we usually live like kings for the first half of the month, but run out of food and then coast on whatever is left for the last couple of weeks until Mom gets paid again.
Joelle is only four, so she stays with our elderly neighbour, Mrs. Johnson, until I get home from school. Mom doesn’t have to pay her very much, which is a good thing, because we don’t have the money for a regular daycare. Mrs. Johnson doesn’t do much with Joelle — she spends most of the day watching soap operas. But Joelle is pretty quiet and good at playing by herself. She invents little games and imaginary friends. She really is no trouble.
In fact, Joelle wins over everyone’s heart. She’s heart-stoppingly beautiful. She has hair like my mother — long, blond, and naturally curly — coupled with bright blue eyes and long, thick eyelashes. She could be a pageant princess or something, the way everyone always gushes about what a pretty child she is. Even though we are sisters, there is little resemblance between us, aside from us both being thin. She is the spitting image of my mother, while I look more like our dad.
Since Mom is staying home again today, Joelle will be staying home, too. She likes being home with Mom, even though chances are Mom will be spending most of the day in bed.
“Bye, Ellie,” I say, kissing her on the top of her head. “Be good. Let Mom rest.”
“Bye, J.J.,” Joelle says back. She’s bitten her crackers into the shapes of what must be animals, and she’s playing out a scene with two of the shapes while chewing on the cracker bits in her mouth.
I look at the clock. I’ve got to get to school. I’ve been late far too often lately. My first period teacher, Mr. Letts, has been less than impressed with how many lates I’ve gotten this term. I grab my backpack and head out the back door, knowing that if I run down the back alley, I can shave off a bit of time getting to school. It’s a brisk morning, and I’m thankful I decided to throw on a jacket today. The side streets are pretty quiet, but then, they always are. We live in one of the oldest neighbourhoods in the city. There are a lot of elderly people who live here, and a mix of different cultures. The houses all tend to be on the smaller side and many of them sit in various states of disrepair.
I gather speed as I approach the first of two busy streets I need to cross before getting to my high school. There’s a break in traffic, and if I run for it, I can make it across the street without having to wait for the light to change. A car seems to speed up as I dash across the road, honking as it zooms past. I feel the rush of the wind from the car as it lifts my hair. Reaching the other end of the road, I step onto the sidewalk and catch my breath. My heart is pounding, and I can feel beads of sweat on my forehead. Suddenly I’m far too warm for this jacket. I peel it off, stuff it in my backpack, and start running again.
“Jayce, you’re late again!” my best friend, Amanda, whispers to me as she passes me in the hallway. She’s walking with a teacher, and they are both carrying stacks of textbooks.
“I know, I know …” I whisper back, hoping that the teacher doesn’t hear me.
“Don’t forget, we’re going out for lunch today,” she reminds me.
Amanda just got a car, so we’ve been leaving the school grounds every chance we get. The only thing within walking distance of our school is a convenience store, so being able to drive to get lunch somewhere is a big thing. Amanda’s parents gave her a car when she turned sixteen. It’s not new or anything, but it’s still pretty awesome.
I’m still in driver training, not that it really matters. The only car we own is a 1980 Ford station wagon that’s been parked like an oversized lawn ornament in our backyard for as long as I can remember. My mom doesn’t drive. We take the bus for everything. I grab my binder from my locker and slam the door shut. I’m hoping I can somehow still sneak into class before Mr. Letts notices, but the last bell must’ve rung quite a while ago, because the hallways are deserted. I’ll probably get detention today, which means that I won’t be able to head out with Amanda and our other friends. Then I realize that detention would probably be a blessing, anyhow. I don’t have any money on me, and the thought of sitting in McDonald’s or Wendy’s watching everyone else eat would pretty much be mental torture.
“Miss Loewen,” Mr. Letts acknowledges me as I enter the room. Isn’t this guy ever late? Why are teachers always so on time? Sure enough, everyone is sitting in their desks and the lesson has already started. I duck my head down and rush to my seat, my cheeks burning with embarrassment.
“You’ll be spending some time in detention again, I see,” he says. He stares at me for what feels like forever, just to prolong my embarrassment.
“Yes, sir,” I respond, flipping open my binder. There are some giggles from around the room, but I ignore them. Mr. Letts takes the cap off a dry-erase marker and starts writing on the board.
“As we discussed before, we have an important day coming up,” he says. He turns toward the class so that we can read what he has written:
TAKE YOUR SON OR DAUGHTER TO WORK DAY
A great read that tackles head-on the difficult and sensitive topics of cancer, family, teenage pregnancy, poverty, adolescence, friendship, and forgiveness.
A beautiful and realistic novel.
If This is Home carries with it a visceral hurt that gives the story a feeling of urgency…it will appeal to younger teens who like their stories with a bit of hardship to dig their teeth into.
Quill and Quire