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The Kids: Are They Alright?
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The Kids: Are They Alright?

By 49thShelf
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(A recommended reading list by Philippa Dowding, whose latest novel for is FIREFLY.) ** What is it like for a child who lives with a parent or who knows an adult struggling with a crisis of mental health, addiction, or homelessness? Canadian children’s authors have written many moving, thoughtful books about kids coping with parents or adults in crisis. While writing my latest book Firefly, I read a lot of them (mostly pretty choked up). I couldn’t include them all, but here is a list of some of my favourite titles from recent years.


also available: eBook

Firefly lived in the park across from her mother’s home. It was safer there. But after the bad night happens, and her baseball-bat-wielding mother is taken away, social services sends Firefly to live with her Aunt Gayle. She hardly knows Gayle, but discovers that she owns a costume shop.

Yes, Firefly might be suffering from PTSD, but she can get used to taking baths, sleeping on a bed again, and wearing as many costumes as she can to school.

But where is “home”? What is “family”? Who is …

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Aunt Pearl
Why it's on the list ...
Dan, Marta and their mother try to help their Aunt Pearl, who is homeless, by giving her a home. But Aunt Pearl is different. She collects garbage and lives in a messy, jumbled way, and yet she shows the children that recycled items can have a purpose, that we can help each other in ways that are unconventional. Then one day Aunt Pearl isn’t there anymore. Where did she go?

This book would have been a great gift to me and my children when they were small, as a thoughtful, gentle starting point for discussion about mental health and homelessness.
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Lily and the Paper Man
Why it's on the list ...
A beautiful story about Lily and the slightly scary (to her) man who sells newspapers on the corner near her home. At first, Lily wants to avoid him. He’s got holes in his boots, in his socks, in his coat! But when the cold weather comes, she begins to see him in a different way. With all those holes, it must be hard to keep warm. Lily starts to worry about him, then takes steps to help him, which she decides is much better than being afraid of him.

A gentle and sweet book that helps a young child think about helping, not fearing, those who are different.
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The Madman of Piney Woods
Why it's on the list ...
It’s 1901. Benji is from Buxton and Red is from Chatham, but they both have their own version of the Madman of Piney Woods, who everyone knows eats children, is over 100 years old, and escaped from slavery. The adults know the Madman’s real story but the traumatic truth keeps them from revealing it, which only leads to wild flights of imagination and fear in the children.

But fear can be overcome. When the boys actually meet the Madman in the woods together, he doesn’t seem so mad anymore. In fact, he just seems sad and lonely. A beautiful story about intergenerational trauma, I loved the slow reveal of the Madman’s true identity, and the easy friendship that develops between the two boys from different towns who team up to help him.
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Chris Dearing has a lot to deal with. His mother is gone to points unknown. His alcoholic dad is in jail for a few weeks and the landlord needs the rent. Social workers are hot on Chris's heels, and Chris wants to try to fix it all by reclaiming his family's gold mine!

Hilarious and hopeful, this is a unique story about a boy who is supposed to be a “loser” from a family of losers, but Chris is anything but a loser. Bonus? He and his friends head to Dawson driving a muffin truck! Also bonus: the sequel, Up the Creek, is out now.
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The King of Jam Sandwiches

The King of Jam Sandwiches

also available: Paperback
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Why it's on the list ...
Robbie’s dad wakes him up and tells him he’s dying. He isn’t. Or his dad disappears for days at a time. Or loses his job again. Or forgets to buy groceries, or pay the bills. Time and again, Robbie is left alone to take care of himself and his beloved dog, Candy. But Robbie has a plan: he’s got six months worth of food in the basement and the numbers to the bank account in case his dad disappears forever.

This story had me in lots of places, mostly because Robbie is so endearing. And finally, when he opens up to a friend, she convinces him that it’s not weak to ask for help. Just ask the right people.
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Safe Harbour

Chapter 1

Most people think cumulus nimbus are the best cloud-watching clouds, but Dad and I prefer cirrus spissatus. If you ask me, the whole cumulus family of clouds is too obvious. It’s like they shout danger when anyone can tell they mean trouble at first glance.

But cirrus spissatus clouds are hypnotic. They promise mystery and hope: a thin veil between earth and heaven that might dissolve at any moment. We most often see Mom in the long, thin cover of the cirrus spissatus clouds. We seek her out every day, unless it’s cloudless, of course, which means she’s giving us the all clear. It’s like a contest to see who can find her first. Maybe her face is our good luck charm or the act of looking is our prayer for the coming day.

When I was little Dad used to beat me to her, but now I find her first. When I do, when I point her out in some distant cloud formation, he sighs and, with a dreamy distant look in his eyes, says: “She’s the most beautiful woman in the world.”

And not until then, not until one of us sees her face in the clouds, do we start our day.

I lie back in the sun with my hands behind my head and scan the sky above me while Tuff dozes in a patch of dappled sunlight farther up the slope. The leaves overhead sift the sunlight across his body in a trembling pattern. His legs jerk slightly and I wonder if he’s chasing a dream squirrel or a rabbit or maybe a raccoon. There’re so many critters to chase and new places to explore in the ravine, I don’t think he misses the boat at all. But I do. I miss the slap of the waves on the hull and rocking in a half-doze on the glinting sea. I miss Dad, too. But never mind.

I slip the last soda cracker into my mouth and chase it with a mouthful of water from the Tropicana jug. Then I empty crumbs from the plastic sleeve into the palm of my hand and eat those, too. I expect the rustling to wake up Tuff, but he’s oblivious to me, whining in his sleep.

When I finish scouring the northern horizon, my eyes drift east. I split the sky into quadrants and search for her that way. North, east, west, and last of all, south. Dad prefers to let his eyes wander across the sky randomly, following her clues from thought to thought. But my way’s faster.

“There she is, Tuff.” I point out her face near the edge of the eastern horizon, beyond the overpass. “She’s smiling today and her hair is streaming in the wind. She sure looks beautiful.” I say it for Dad and then stand up.

Finally Tuff raises his head and assesses me from his patch of sunshine and green grass.

“Well, c’mon. Up you get. We can’t lie around here all day. We’ve got stuff to do.”

Tuff devours a bowl of kibble while I pack the tent and zip it closed. Then I pull the branches over the front door until it’s completely hidden. It would take a psychic, or maybe a U.S. Marine, to find our campsite.

I pat my front pocket for my phone and charger. Then check for the lump in my back pocket, which is a small fold of twenty-dollar bills and the credit card.

“Everything’s in order. Let’s go!”

Tuff follows me out to the trail and up the side of the ravine, sniffing at every stalk of grass and tree trunk like he’s met them all before and has to say hello to a long-lost friend.

“Don’t get too used to living on land.”

He tilts his head and barks once.

“Of course, I’ll always take you for walks so you can chase squirrels.”

As if to demonstrate his joy, Tuff races up the side of the ravine and stops at the base of a stately maple tree. He stares into the branches and dances around the trunk, trying to get a sightline on whatever he chased up there. When I get too far ahead, he abandons the tree and runs to catch up.

It’s a glorious summer day. The sun is warm and bright without making the day oppressively hot. It’s the air quality in Toronto that surprises me most. Even though it’s July, the clarity of the air makes me feel optimistic and it’s easy to breathe. It’s never like that in the Keys, or even farther north in Tampa. No, the air in Florida is thick and heavy, and you can’t ever forget that you need your lungs to survive. The summer air in Miami could sear your throat if you inhaled too deep.

When we get to the cemetery, I clip the leash onto Tuff ’s collar and head toward Bloor Street. I haven’t been in Toronto long, but I already know the major intersections and basic landmarks downtown. I know the names of some of the neighbourhoods and can find my way to a few places.

There are even a couple of people I see day after day. Like the girl who sits on a square of cardboard near the intersection of Yonge and Bloor, her legs folded like a pretzel and her back as straight as the wall she melts into. She sits on the same block, though not always in the exact same place. Today she’s on the northeast corner. As I turn onto Yonge Street, I look at her and nod. Tuff sniffs at her cup of change and I tug lightly on his leash.

“It’s okay. He’s cute,” she says and reaches out to ruffle the fur behind his ears. I let Tuff introduce himself.

“Sorry. I don’t have any change,” I say apologetically.

“No worries. I’m happy meeting your dog. What’s his name?”

“Tuff Stuff.”

She wrinkles up her nose. “What sort of name is that?”

“My mom named him when he was a puppy because he was always trying to show the bigger dogs that he was boss.”

“Is he?” She leans close and wraps her arms around Tuff ’s neck. He sits down, happy to be adored by a pretty girl. And she is pretty, despite the layers of dark clothing hiding her petite frame and the rings of black eyeliner that make her look like she’s scowling. It’s obvious she wants people to think she’s badass, even though I can tell she isn’t. Not even her black dreads or eyebrow rings can camouflage her perfect smile.

“Is he what? Tough?”

“Yeah, and the boss?”

“Not really. He’s a pushover.”

The girl unknots her legs and stands up. She reaches out her hand. “Lise Roberts,” she says.

I hesitate and Lise chuckles.

“It’s okay. I don’t bite and I wash every day. With soap.”

A hot blush washes over my cheeks and I take her hand.

“Harbour Mandrayke. Nice to meet you.”

“You should stop and talk sometime, when you have a few minutes,” Lise suggests. “I think Tuff would like it.”

Tuff leans against her leg with a hopeful expression and points his muzzle up at her like a wolf getting ready to howl at the moon.

“I will,” I say and pull Tuff down the street after me.

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Why it's on the list ...
Harbour keeps telling herself that she’s not homeless. She’s just waiting for her father to arrive on their sailboat from Florida, and something is holding him up. Slowly, readers come to suspect that he’s dealing with a mental health crisis and he’s not coming for his daughter.

Set on the streets of Toronto over the course of fall that turns into winter, Harbour is a smart kid hiding in plain sight, who has no choice but to learn to navigate the shelter system, panhandle, and who simply hangs on until help arrives. A gritty read about life in a tent in an urban centre, but worth it.
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Fifteen Point Nine
Why it's on the list ...
Aggie is poor. And not just poor, she lives with an alcoholic mother who also happens to be a manic hoarder. One tiny peek into Aggie's life: near the end of the book, you find out her mother has been using garbage bags as a toilet and keeping them around the house. Wow.

This book is beautifully written, and absolutely destroyed me. I read it in one sitting, and then read it again. If you want to know the struggles that a kid (who is 15 years and nine months old, hence the title) living with a hoarder might be going through, read this book. It’s brilliant and has an indomitable kid at its centre, who never looks back.
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