Eleven-year-old Ari Hazard is living in the shadow of her mother’s dying wishes: She must get into the prestigious Carter middle school and stick by older brother Gage no matter what. When Gage has a falling out with their guardian, he takes to the streets with Ari in tow. Staying with friends and occasionally at a juvenile shelter, they do the best they can, but the stress is overwhelming. Paper Things uncovers an often-unknown reality that is often hiding in plain sight.
Author Jennifer Richard Jacobson (Small as an Elephant) perfectly captures the reality of being rootless while still trying to present a normal facade. When Ari overhears classmates making fun of her dirty hair, it’s a double blow, reminding her that she doesn’t have easy access to a shower. Her game of “Paper Things,” a dollhouse world made of catalog cutout pictures, lets her grieve for her parents and visualize her ideal home and family at the same time. Tradition is a theme throughout the book, including an elementary school protest in defense of their student activities that gives a nod to civil disobedience.
While the story is sad, it’s also powerfully optimistic. Gage loves and protects Ari, but she’s the one who makes the mature decision to reclaim the childhood that homelessness is stripping away from her. Paper Things treats honesty, compassion and generosity as things we can never have too much of in life. Here’s hoping it inspires more of the same in its readers.