Home: It’s a loaded little word with different implications for everyone. Tradition says it’s a locus of comfort and security, a place where family members offer unconditional love. The reality, of course, is often very different. What happens when home is a source of uncertainty and upheaval? Two YA novels provide teen perspectives on navigating life’s obstacles in the absence of the centering force of home.
Jennifer Longo’s What I Carry is narrated by Muiriel, Muir for short, a resilient young woman born an orphan at the John Muir Medical Center (for which she was named) in California. Almost 18 and wise beyond her years, she’s about to age out of the foster-care system.
Compared to other foster kids, Muir feels she has certain advantages. She’s white, she doesn’t agonize over memories of lost family members, and she’s had the same social worker for nearly her entire life. It was kindhearted Joellen who once gave her a book called The Wilderness World of John Muir, a collection of writings by the great naturalist. The volume inspired Muir to hone her survival skills amid the unpredictable world of foster care. Carrying with her only the bare essentials, she lives out of her suitcase and doesn’t own a phone. Eleven months is the longest she’s ever stayed with a foster family, and where exit strategies are concerned, she’s a pro.
After Muir moves into a foster home on an island not far from Seattle, her outlook changes. She connects with her foster mother, Francine, and befriends Kira, a talented young Japanese American artist. When she meets a fellow nature lover named Sean at her forestry internship, she finds herself falling hard—both for him and for her new life. But staying still has never come easy to Muir, and as the novel progresses, she wrestles with her instinct to run.
Longo has a gift for arresting details: “Slamming doors are birdsong in a foster house—always there,” Muir observes, “a kind of background music.” Longo writes with warmth, humor and a flair for good old-fashioned storytelling, spinning subplots involving Kira and other supporting characters to create a beautifully realized tale of a teen’s search for her place in the world.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our Q&A with What I Carry author Jennifer Longo.
Izzy Crawford, the 16-year-old narrator of Maria Padian’s How to Build a Heart, is on journey similar to Muir’s. Izzy’s father, a Marine, died in Iraq when she was 10. With her mother, Rita, and little brother, Jack, Izzy has bounced from town to town over the years.
Now settled in Clayton, Virginia, in the Meadowbrook Gardens Mobile Home Park, the Crawfords are struggling to make ends meet. Izzy, a junior at the girls-only St. Veronica Catholic School, is ashamed of her home situation and keeps the details of her family life a secret. But an unexpected friendship with wealthy Aubrey Shackelton, whose brother, Sam, is the heartthrob of Clayton County High School, opens up new possibilities for Izzy. And when Sam shows an interest in her, she’s suddenly in “Crush Hell.”
Izzy maintains her precarious social facade until the Crawfords are chosen to build their very own house through Habitat for Humanity. The selection will be announced to the public and will invariably blow her cover. Afraid she’s about to become the “poverty poster child of Clayton, Virginia,” Izzy is forced to make important decisions about herself and her future.
As the story unfolds, so do the many layers Padian has built into the novel. Izzy’s father was Methodist and Southern, while her mother is Puerto Rican and Catholic; these differences have caused friction in their extended family. Readers are bound to see a bit of themselves in Izzy as she copes with the conflicting sides of her background, along with social pressures and delicate new friendships.
How to Build a Heart is a sensitively rendered story, but it’s also a fun read, brisk and engaging. There are mean girls who get their comeuppance, text-message mix-ups and, yes, the thrill of first love. Like What I Carry, Padian’s book demonstrates the importance of home as a source of support and identity for teens. Both novels illustrate that while family configurations may shift, the need for a home remains a constant. There really is no place like it.