Fifth-grader Brittany Kowalski looks for Plan B.
Home life is complicated for Brittany’s family, living in her mother’s abusive boyfriend’s house on Chicago’s struggling West Side. Her great-grandmother has all but disappeared into dementia. There’s hardly enough money for food for a growing 11-year-old and her baby brother, so her mother hasn’t been eating much. The brutish Jack appears and disappears, is bitingly critical, hits her mother, but won’t allow her to work. Blejwas sets her moving account of Brittany’s search for a better life in the depressing weather of late fall and early winter. Her first-person narrative doesn’t dwell on the abuse but on the details of living in poverty, such as taking the bus across town to get the makings of Thanksgiving dinner from a church food pantry. It’s cold in their apartment; people get sick; her great-grandmother dies. A bright (and warm) spot is school, where Mr. McInnis, an eager first-year teacher, pushes his mostly uncaring students and encourages them to imagine their futures. When frustrated by school rules, he looks for Plan B, providing a model. Brittany’s family is white; other major characters reflect the diversity of a big northern city. Sadly, some readers may know Brittany’s world well, others will find it surprising; all will appreciate the way Brittany’s actions propel the resolution.
Hard to take but ultimately hopeful. (Fiction. 9-12)