Eleven-year-old June Yang feels like bad luck follows her family everywhere. First her dad, a bicycle delivery driver, was killed in a tragic street accident. Then her mom, consumed by grief and depression, withdrew from the world, lost her job and June became the de facto caregiver for her 6-year-old sister, Maybelle. And now June’s family has been evicted from their Chinatown apartment and relocated to Huey House, a shelter in the South Bronx for families experiencing homelessness.
At first, everything at Huey House seems strange and disorienting, including the hourslong bus ride to school and the practical jokes played by longtime shelter residents Tyrell and Jeremiah. The final straw is the news that June can’t play her beloved viola at the shelter. But June quickly starts to see how the shelter’s residents help one another and how kindness can manifest in surprising ways. And she discovers that Tyrell, whose brash exterior belies a sensitive heart, a fear of abandonment and a love for classical music, might share some of the same dreams that she does.
Author Karina Yan Glaser is beloved for her critically acclaimed middle grade series about the Vanderbeekers, a large and loving family in Harlem. As she does in those books, Glaser infuses this standalone novel with sweetness and optimism (softhearted Maybelle and her overwhelming love for dogs and other animals is especially appealing) while acknowledging the complexities of her characters’ lives.
In an author’s note that opens the book, Glaser describes how the seeds of A Duet for Home were planted when she worked at a family housing shelter similar to Huey House 20 years ago. She incorporates a real-life policy initiative—a drive to quickly rehouse families experiencing homelessness in inadequate, unsafe facilities without sufficient support systems—into the novel as well. Within the story, Glaser brilliantly illustrates the drawbacks of this policy from a child’s point of view and shows the power of political action through her characters’ responses.
June and Tyrell are memorable and inspiring protagonists, and Glaser surrounds them with a cast of well-developed secondary characters. In addition to Maybelle and Jeremiah, there are also supportive grown-ups such as Ms. Gonzalez (aka Ms. G), the bighearted social worker who knows every resident’s favorite food so she can surprise them with their favorite dishes, and Domenika, the lovably prickly viola teacher next door.
As its title suggests, A Duet for Home is also suffused with music. Glaser even helpfully provides a list of all the compositions referenced throughout at the end of the novel. A Duet for Home portrays how an appreciation for music and a desire to make the world more beautiful can give all young people—and perhaps especially the most vulnerable—a way to believe in themselves.