Available March 2013
How can a bicycle accident, a Dutch diamond heist, an old Langston Hughes poetry book, and some librarians launch a hard working, hard dreaming family on the South Side of Chicago into homelessness and a search for their missing father? Blue Balliett has the answer in her surprisingly ambitious new mystery Hold Fast.
Balliett tackles much heavier subject matter in Hold Fast than she did in the Chasing Vermeer series that made her into a household name in mysteries for children. Not only does she tackle issues and the experience of homelessness, she also writes against race. She is a white woman writing about a black family living in South Side Chicago, a neighborhood with areas of extreme poverty, and the success with which she portrays the Pearl family (at least to this white girl!) speaks both to her writing ability and her research. I also appreciate the smart, virus and resourceful character she has created in Early Pearl, the main character and heroine of the story. Not nearly enough middle-grade chapter books have characters of color, let alone ones as worthy of admiration as Early, though at times she can be a little too good to be true.
Even more rare than non-white protagonists is characters that are homeless. My librarian heart cries out for more books that say “Hey kids, guess what! Some people have real problems!” You know, problems beyond unrequited crushes or falling in love with a vampire/angel/ghost/werewolf. Even I learned something from this book about living in a shelter, desperately looking for a job, trying to figure out who will watch your kids even if you do get a job, and the list of terrifying things I never want to experience first-hand goes on. Thank goodness some of us only have to live that nightmare from the safe distance of books.
The layout is also somewhat avant garde as children’s books go, with chapters opening with dictionary definitions of the chapter names – many of them onomatopoeia – and a line-drawn symbol representing the same word. The symbol reappears throughout the chapter. If this sounds weird or confusing, that’s my fault for trying to describe it. I suggest you grab a copy of the book to kook at if you get a chance…or just take my word for it that it’s kinda cool, if a tad gimmicky.
My librarian heart also fell hook-line-and-sinker for Balliett’s references to classic literature (the title comes from Langston Hughes’s poem “Dreams”), the importance of reading, the Chicago Public Library, and word play at all socioeconomic levels. I don’t want to ruin anything by saying to much about the public library’s role in the mystery, but let’s just say I enjoyed, with some skepticism as to the mechanics, the library being the center of some intrigue and excitement. Storytime at my library can get crazy and all, but it can’t compete with missing persons, jewel heists, and questionable HR decisions.
To be honest, I don’t read many mysteries, but I may have to start if I can find others that combine the heart, smarts, and library love that Blue Balliett has packed into Hold Fast.
Buying it for the library?: I already did!
Recommending it to: boys and girls grades 5-8