Reader, today we’re going to talk toilets. Now, not in a weird way or a gross way, but because they’re a central theme in Susin Neilson’s No Fixed Address. They’re big white porcelain symbols of the main character’s resourcefulness as he navigates housing insecurity, and they’re really important to think about in terms of access for your own students.
Have a seat, and let’s chat.
Jeanie: I’m Jeanie Phillips. Welcome to #vted Reads. We’re here to talk books for educators, by educators, and with educators. Today I’m with Annie Brabazon, and we’ll be talking about No Fixed Address by Susin Neilsen. Thanks for joining me, Annie. Tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do.
Annie: Hi Jeanie, thanks for having me. I am a school librarian at Grand Isle School. We’re currently a K-8 school. At the end of this year, we will be becoming a K through six school. I’ll be starting my ninth year in the fall. Prior to that, I was a public librarian for a while and then prior to that I worked in Higher Ed and student affairs. I’m on the Dorothy Canfield Fisher Book Award Committee. This is my third year. I’ll be stepping off at the end of this spring. It’s been a really great pleasure to be able to dive into a bunch of books and work with a committee of readers to figure out the best books that we want to present to kids in our community.
Jeanie: You guys do an amazing job at that. I always love the list and we’re going to talk more about that list at the end. But let’s start by introducing this fabulous book, No Fixed Address. I loved it so much. I read it in a day and I wondered if you might start by introducing us to our charming narrator, Felix.
Annie: Yes, I’d agree he’s really charming! Felix Knuttson, he’s 12 and I think he turns 13 in the course of the story. He lives with his mom who prefers that he call her Astrid, because she thinks “Mom” and “Dad” might create a little bit of a hierarchy, and she’s not really into that. And he’s a smart kid. He’s a really funny kid and he’s a really, really sweet kid that has to do a lot of adult things and kind of be the adult in his relationship with his mom. More than a kid should have to be.
…and his quirky family
Jeanie: Yeah. He has kind of an out of the box, non-heteronormative family. Do we want to talk a little bit about his family circumstances?
Annie: Sure. So, his mom, Astrid is not in a relationship with anybody. She goes in and out of different relationships. But that’s not really the main focus of the book. His dad is someone who he hears from once in a while, but is a gay man who donated his sperm to Astrid so that she could have Felix. Again, I think with both his parents, Felix kind of has to be the adult in those situations. His dad is a struggling artist who is, I think caught up a little bit in finding romance in his life a little more than he is in consistently being a part of Felix’s life. Felix is forgiving and understanding about that. More than I think, if that were me in that situation, I think I might be.
Astrid is a mom who has a hard time holding down a job. She can’t always hold back what she’s thinking and feeling. And it doesn’t always work well in jobs that in particular involve customer service component to them. So she might lose jobs pretty frequently throughout the story. She struggles with depression. Felix calls it her slumps. And when those happen, he again has to step up and really be the parent and the adult in that situation.
Dealing with mental illness
Jeanie: Yeah. He really describes the slumps really interestingly. Let’s think about that for a minute. I love where he talks about what it’s like when his mom is in a slump. I’m on page 87. I’ll just read a portion of it.
She likes to say that the day I was born was the happiest day of her life. And she named me after her brother, to keep his memory alive. I think that’s why she likes me to call her Astrid instead of “Mom,” because that’s what Original Felix called her.
I know some people find it weird. I remember other parents in the schoolyard thought I was precocious, calling her Astrid. But when they found out she wanted it that way, they looked at her like she was precocious.
I’m just trying to give some context before I mention Astrid’s Slumps. That’s her word for them. Slumps. She’s had them off and on for years, but they usually don’t last very long — a few days at most. During a Slump she stays in bed and I take charge. Mormor took charge when she was alive, but after that it was left to me.
So, Mormor is the grandmother who really, sort of anchored Felix before she passed away when he was a young man. I think you really hit on something interesting, Annie, which is that, because Felix’s parents are so immature, he has to be mature beyond his years.
Annie: Right. It’s amazing how he does that. And! What I love about him is that he also can be a kid and he has some terrific friends that help him be a kid and be silly and goofy and have that part of his life feel rich and full as well. So, I feel really happy for him that he can still have the opportunity through his friendships to have moments of being a kid.
The spiral path to housing insecurity
Jeanie: So when the book starts, Felix is sitting in a police office talking to a police officer. He’s explaining their circumstances, particularly how he and his mother came to be living in this Westfalia van. I wondered if you could just give us a brief summary, as Felix does, of their struggles with housing.
Annie: So they haven’t always lived in a van. When the story starts, it’s about four months that prior to that, that things started to fall apart.
It’s so interesting for people that are not secure about their home situation or their living situation, how in the forefront it is of they’re thinking.
Felix can specifically talk about how at one point they lived in a 400-square-foot basement and then another point they lived in a 600-square-foot apartment and then they owned an 800-square-foot condo before they had to live with their grandmother Mormor. And then, once Mormor died and all of those other situations fell apart. They couldn’t continue to be in any living situation where they needed to pay rent. Astrid wasn’t holding up her end of the deal.
Jeanie: Thanks for that summary. The part that really sticks out for me, because it’s true that Astrid doesn’t hold jobs very well, nor friendships, and that *that* makes their housing more unstable. But there’s a point at which Astrid and Felix, when Mormor dies, they inherit her house. They come into some money and they purchase a condo, right? And they’re living in this condo quite happily in a neighborhood he loves, with the school he loves. But the condo starts sinking. It’s structurally unsound and each person in those condos has to pay, I think it’s like $40,000. So, what was a stable housing situation that they could afford despite Astrid’s employment irregularities, they suddenly have to sell it at a loss. And that starts this downward spiral.
So, Astrid is not perfect, but this situation was out of her control.
Annie: So right. You’re right, absolutely right about that. And she has a sense that things start to spiral. Astrid also actually had a job as an art teacher. But again, a thing out of her control was that the enrollment and the art classes decreased. So they didn’t need to keep her. That was not anything that Astrid could control. So, some of those situations out of her control — in combination with some of her challenges with holding down a job — made maintaining a stable home environment really hard.
Jeanie: I think that’s really important.
I think it’s really easy to pigeonhole or stereotype poor people, and think that they are poor because of the bad choices they made. We all make bad choices. Some of us just have stronger safety nets.
Annie: Right. That’s a really good point because I think with Mormor gone, that was a big safety net for both of them. The man that Astrid had been sharing a living space with, left. That was another person that had been kind of a support and a safety net for them as well.
And I think some of the shame around insecurity around your home situation and not being able to talk to people, I think contributes to that spiral continuing because it’s uncomfortable to ask for help. It’s uncomfortable to seek out resources that might identify you as a person who doesn’t have a secure, stable home situation. Astrid was very proud and didn’t want to ask for a lot of support or help. Because I think she wanted to be able to provide that for Felix and maintain this hopefulness that things would work out.
The importance of a safety net
Jeanie: I had a lot of empathy for the before and after Mormor. Like the way in which Felix’s grandmother was such an amazing support for him and for Astrid. My grandparents were a safety net for my family? And that I can’t imagine what my childhood would have been like without their support. NS I see this a lot for our Vermont students. I think this shows up a lot for students in our schools. They’re really reliant on the support of aunts and uncles and grandparents and other family members. And some of our students really lack those support networks.
So for me, this story is really important to have in Vermont school libraries. It’s important that many of our students could see themselves in Felix’s story.
Annie: In my school community where I teach, I also live in the town next-door. A lot of our families or our kids are being raised by their grandparents; more and more that number is increasing. If they’re not being raised by them, they’re definitely being supported, and the parenting and the caring for them is being shared. So I do think that a lot of kids would see themselves in Felix. I also think in terms of security around a consistent home and space to live? That’s something more and more kids in the community where I live would identify with as well. And I do think that grandparents — it’s kind of a wonderful relationship to see with kids.
Jeanie: I can’t say enough that Astrid really loves Felix. This kid is really well loved.
Annie: Oh, totally well loved. Yes. One of the moving parts for me was when Horatio, the hamster, died. Astrid had gone out to get a space heater for the van and ended up having to try to shoplift it and got caught. And so was held up at the police station because of that and wasn’t home for Felix when he woke up and discovered that Horatio was dead. But when she did come back her love and her comforting of him was just, that was just that such a great part of the book for me. It just really reminded me how much she does love Felix and how much he loves her. He even called her mom in that moment because his emotions were so strong. His grief was so great. He knew that even though he doesn’t call her mom, she is still that to him. She is still that one who cares and nurtures and takes care of him.
Jeanie: I just don’t want to villainize her and I’m never fond of books that create a villain out of somebody who maybe struggles with mental illness, but who is doing the best she can. Astrid is *really* doing the best she can.
Annie: She totally is. The humor in this book that helps us kind of appreciate that about her too is what one of the other things that I really loved about this when he talks about Astrid’s lies and the different kinds of lies she’s telling.
A “Glossary of Lies”
Jeanie: I would love it if you would turn to page 31 and read the opening paragraph under Astrid’s Guidebook to Lies.
I suppose I need to pause here to explain that yes, on occasion, my mother lies. But it’s important to note that she has levels of lies, and rules surrounding each. Sort of like the Church of Scientology and their levels of Operating Thetans, her rationales don’t always make a lot of sense. But this is how I break them down in my head.
Jeanie: Let’s just go through the list.
The first one is The Invisible Lie
This is your run of the mill white lie, that type we all tell multiple times a day without even thinking about it. For example, say you’ve just been diagnosed with a terminal illness and your waiter/bus driver says, “How are you?” And you say, “Fine.” Because it’s understood that they don’t really want to know the truth.
Jeanie: Yeah. And then I love this one,
The “Give Peace a Chance” Lie
Annie: He refers to that a lot, and sees that in other people as well throughout the story. It’s a kind of lie that we say to spare someone’s feelings. Someone asked Astrid’s waiter friend if the pants she had on made her butt look big, and Astrid, of course, said, “No”. Because she didn’t want to hurt her feelings.
Jeanie: Yeah. Then there is:
The “Embellishment” Lie
Astrid would argue that embellishing really isn’t lying, it’s just adding some flavor, like putting more spices into a dish. For example, she will pad her résumé with some things that aren’t, shall we say, accurate, depending on the type of job she’s applying for.
That’s a great one.
Jeanie Philips: I love this one. It’s such a short description,
The “No One Gets Hurt” Lie
These are bald-faced lies aimed at helping out the liar in some way. But — and this is crucial — they harm no one.
Annie: Yeah. Then
The “Someone Might Lose an Eye” Lie
These are the worst type of lies, the kind that have the potential to hurt the teller, the tellee, or both.
Jeanie: This is early on in the book, and what I love is that we come back to this again as both Astrid and Felix himself tell lies.
He’s really exploring morality in this really interesting way, in a life where he has to, because of shame and circumstance, tell different sorts of lies just to survive.
Annie: Right. He doesn’t want his friends to know that he doesn’t have a home. He uses some of these lies to just again like you said, not feel so horrible about himself and the shame that goes along with maybe not having a home. And the fear that, what would his friends think about him?
Homelessness? “Houselessness”? Housing Insecurity?
Jeanie: I think that brings up something really interesting because Felix doesn’t think of himself as homeless. And that just reminded me of a couple of things I’d like to process with you. One was a This American Life episode about a girl who found refuge in a library, and didn’t realize that the reason her mom took her to the library every day is because they were homeless. She didn’t realize until much later.
Lydia spent a lot of time in her public library growing up – all day, almost every day, for six months. She returns to visit that library after years away. https://t.co/wUIrgOgbwO
— This American Life (@ThisAmerLife) December 31, 2018
And then recently on a learning journey, I took to Hawaii to study, place-based learning, there’s a huge problem with people who don’t have adequate housing. So they set up encampments. And the advocates there are calling it “houselessness’. Because these folks are making homes.
And, in fact, Felix and his mother do make a home out of the Westfalia van. They just don’t have a house.
Then I think about how in schools we use this term housing insecure because many of our students without houses are living with family members or in houses that are too small. They’re sharing homes with other people. I’m thinking about, how the terminology impacts self-identity because Felix has this moment where he suddenly realizes, “oh.” He realizes that in contrast to the homeless man on the street, and it occurs to him suddenly, like, “I’m like that guy.”
Annie: Right. I was thinking about that, especially when they finally get that apartment above the grocery store and…
Jeanie: Shhhh, no spoilers!
What makes a home
Annie: Sorry! (I know, I was wondering if I should go there.) But I do think he sees that housing and having a home are different and they look different. His situation looks different from Bob, the man who was living in a cardboard box beside a building. Even when he brought his friends, Winnie and Dylan to the van, and he finally opened up to them about where his home was.
When he was talking to them and showing them around, he realized that he had a lot of what makes a home. It made it feel different for him, I think, to be open about it, and bring his friends there.
Jeanie: Absolutely. It’s this huge moment in the book too that I think is really interesting to explore with kids about Winnie and Dylan have to decide whether or not to disclose this secret. Because Felix swears them to secrecy. He can’t tell anyone because his family is afraid of the Department of Children and Families. He’s afraid of that. He doesn’t want to be separated from his mom and he worries about that. So, he swears them to secrecy, and WE WON’T GIVE IT AWAY.
Winnie and Dylan really have to wrestle with whether or not to keep a secret.
Annie: The other part I think about is, so one of Felix’s strategies to try and change his situation and get he and Astrid out of the van is to enter this Who, What, Where, When game show. It’s kind of like a Jeopardy type of show and he’s a master at answering the questions. There’s history, geography, science, all, the whole gamut. He enters this contest hoping that the prize money will be what is needed to get he and his mom back on track again and having more housing security in their life. And at one point he realizes that they might be in a motel where the signs on the motel have lit up letters that are not lighting up. So the words aren’t clear. There are some shady characters that live there and there’s a whole list of what you can do and what you can’t do.
For him, that doesn’t feel like a home. For him, that feels like a place that’s not safe. I think it again makes him appreciate the van.
Even though there were a lot of struggles living there, there was the ability to be who he was and feel safe and secure with Astrid there.
Resiliency, resourcefulness, and morality
Jeanie: And he has to be incredibly resilient. Both he and Astrid do. He has all of these strategies for dealing with this housing situation, like keeping clean. He keeps a toiletry kit in his locker. Hiding the truth takes a lot of work, right? Like he has to sort of lie about where he lives, but he also has to sort of pretend like he has everything he needs and it requires a real resourcefulness. And then just the life skills he has for dealing with that reality. So, I’m on page 67 and it says,
As September drew to a close it got colder, especially at night. This is something you become acutely aware of when you live in a van.
But we adapted. As Astrid likes to say, living in a Westfalia definitely makes a person more resourceful. “Resourceful, Felix, is a good life skill to have.”
And we are nothing if not resourceful. Take Wi-Fi, for example. When we need it, we go to a coffee shop, or find an unsecured network. When something needs recharging, like a phone or batteries for our headlamp, we plug in somewhere like the Laundromat. Sometimes we plug in at a power source outside an empty house. On the west side of Vancouver, there are a lot of big, brand-new houses with no one living in them– Astrid says they are “investment properties.” It’s one of her pet peeves. “Our city is becoming a playground for the rich. Enormous, empty homes, when so many people who live here can’t find affordable housing. Our politicians should be ashamed of themselves,” she says. Over and over and over and over.
He goes on to talk about food and how they survive on food. And this is a point where I got really — my heart broke for Felix even more. He says,
But to be clear, I am not malnourished; not too badly anyway. I don’t think I’m suffering from scurvy or a vitamin deficiency or anything like that. We shop at the No Frills, where you can get really good deals on produce they’re about to throw out. And once in a while my mom will–
and we come to a place of morality again. What are your thoughts about Felix’s resiliency and all of the life skills he has?
Annie: Yeah, I think it’s amazing. I know in addition to what you’ve talked about, just when Astrid is in one of her Slumps and she might not get out of bed, there’s in the van things he needs to get to that he can’t get to until she’s out of her bed. So, he learns to plan around that and access those things when he can, when it’s not a rush for him to get to school. Or sometimes he can’t, and he has to go to school in the clothes he slept in or wore the day before. So, he has a plan for cleaning himself up at school when those situations arise.
He just amazes me in his ability to get to school every day and be the amazing kid and friend to his friends that he is every day with everything he has to go through.
As far as the morality goes… So, sometimes Astrid needs to shoplift so that they can have food or things that they need to survive in the van. Felix struggles with that and I think he struggles from knowing that it’s not right to steal. Also that he worries about his mom getting caught and what that might mean for them in terms of them staying as a family.
He keeps track of the things that have been shoplifted with a plan to, when they get back on their feet again, reimburse all the places where things have been taken. Food or other items. Again, I think that just speaks a lot to his character and his understanding of right and wrong, but his ability also to understand that situations sometimes demand us to be resourceful in ways that are the right thing to do. And sometimes they’re things that aren’t the right thing to do, but they’re not hurting anybody.
Jeanie: Yeah. Just like his lies.
Annie: Just like his lies. Right?
The Importance of Friends (and toilets)
Jeanie: Yeah. He so wants to be a good person. You’ve mentioned several times that he’s a good friend and he has good friends. Dylan was a friend who went to school with when they lived in their condo. They used to visit each other’s houses and when they moved out of the neighborhood, he didn’t have access to Dylan anymore. He loves to go to Dylan’s house because there’s lots of food.
Annie: Right, and a warm bed and a warm shower. You don’t have to work to have them be available. They’re just there.
Jeanie: And Dylan’s family is so welcoming. Then he makes this other friend.
He and Dylan end up being friends with this other person, Winnie who I think of as the Hermione Granger of this book.
October 31, 1991: Harry, Ron, and Hermione take down the troll. From this day forward, they were best friends. pic.twitter.com/UlhVAEWoZS
— Harry Potter Universe (@HPotterUniverse) October 31, 2018
Annie: Yes. I agree. That’s great.
Jeanie: Hermione, as you may or may not recall, listeners, (was I bet you do), was kind of an annoying know-it-all at the beginning of the book. She sort of wheedled her way into Harry and Ron’s friendship and eventually into their hearts and Winnie Wu sort of does something similar. She’s sort of an annoying know-it-all, and becomes their friend.
I really love this scene on page 72 and 73 when Dylan and Felix first visit Winnie’s house. Her mom is a doctor; I think she’s an obstetrician. So, her mom is sleeping after a late shift and, Mr. Wu, her father, is there. Winnie is fixing them snacks, but she makes this terrible gluten-free bread.
Winnie held out a plate to her Dad. “You sure you won’t have one?”
Mr. Wu padded his stomach, “Wish I could. Still stuffed from a late breakfast. Honey, do you mind getting my water glass? I left it in the other room.”
The moment she was gone, he motioned to us. “Quick. Take out the cheese and hand me the bread.” We did as we were told. We wolfed down the cheese while he slipped the bread into the garbage, making sure to put other items on top of it. When Winnie returned he told a Give Peace a Chance. “Your friends are bottomless pits! I’m making them lunch number two.” He started pulling stuff out of his grocery bags. “Steamed pork buns, anyone?”
“Ba, what have I said about pork?” Winnie chastised.
“Once in a while I need my fix,” he said. I ate four of them. They were legit delicious.
Mr. Wu seemed like a very good dad.
Before Dylan and I left, I used the bathroom. It was white and clean and smelled like lavender potpourri. They even had a heated toilet seat.
I sat there for a long time, feeling the warmth radiate through my bum. And suddenly, out of nowhere, tears pricked my eyes.
I longed for a toilet.
And I longed for my dad.
So, I really love this because actually, toilets are a big theme in this.
Annie: Yes. It’s so funny if you think about really his priority was having a home would mean having my own toilet. For him, there were some struggles in the book for just being able to have that privacy and that space to use the bathroom, and go to the bathroom. For any of us, that’s a really embarrassing thing to not have that. And for a 12-year-old boy, even more so.
Jeanie: Yeah. Not having a house, living in a van is hard at the best of times. Like if you’re out camping on family vacation, there’s already a little hardship that goes with that. Anytime that times get tough, it gets even harder. So, when Felix gets really sick, it’s just awful. When it gets really cold. When his mom’s in a Slump, there are just so many times in which it goes beyond just slightly challenging to downright almost impossible.
Annie: Yeah, and something that most people would not have to endure over a long period of time. If your house gets stinky, you can clean it or air it out. Sometimes in a small space like a van that’s not so easy.
A teacher’s responsibility
Jeanie: But he hides it. He manages really to mostly hide it from the teachers at his school. Like Mr. Thibault is his classroom teacher, I think.
Annie: He picks up on it a little bit. He asks, I think one of the days when Felix wasn’t able to change his clothing, he checks in, if everything is okay. But the teachers don’t, for the most part, know, or push really hard to find out more.
Jeanie: As an educator, I can understand that. Like it’s really hard to navigate. How do you help somebody?
I guess what’s really hard to navigate, is how do you make sure that you’re allowing somebody to claim their full dignity, but also to make sure they have everything they need.
I would really struggle with a Felix in my class, because even if I suspected things weren’t quite all right at home, I would also want him to have agency over his life.
Annie: Right. Yeah, and to know how to let him know that resources are there without having to feel like you’re prying or talking about things that aren’t just comfortable for him to talk about or that he’s not ready to talk about. Yeah, I agree. You do want to be sensitive and respect people’s situations and dignity like you said. I think that would be really hard as an educator for me, too. To know how to navigate that with him.
Jeanie: Right. This book to me felt like such an important empathy read for adults who work with young people. Also for young people to really grapple with how easy it can be to lose your house or to be put in a predicament that it’s impossible to get yourself back fully on your feet.
Annie: Winnie, I think does a good job of modeling how to be a good friend around that. At one point in the story, I think she’s coming to understand that Felix might be poor. And she’s not, in her situation. Her mom is a doctor and her dad’s a nurse and she just, as kids can so well do with one another asks, “Are you poor, Felix?” And they try to talk about it a little bit and then she shares her food with him because so often he comes to school with no breakfast. Then having had no breakfast and then having no lunch to bring with him.
So, she just doesn’t make a big deal about it and just graciously and kindly shares her food with him. And it doesn’t try to save him or fix him, she just wants to know and just because she cares about them.
Jeanie: There’s a real sweetness, a real tenderness in his friendships, and how they support each other.
Annie: Yeah, absolutely.
Jeanie: There’s also great middle school dance kind of scene that happens, which is just so much fun. Readers you will enjoy that section of the book too.
Vermont’s Middle School Student Choice Award
This book is on, as you mentioned earlier, the Dorothy Canfield Fisher award list, which is our Vermont State Middle Grades Student Choice Award list. Recently in the news, we hear that a name change is planned for 2020. Do you want to talk a little bit about that process and what’s happening there?
Annie: Yeah, so I think people were ready to hear a decision about this. It’s been talked about for quite a while. I’m happy that we’re moving in that direction because I think, there’s a lot of different opinions out there. I think, once we learned that that name was serving to exclude some kids and some families from participating in that book award because of Dorothy’s Canfield involvement in the eugenics movement, that it was for me a no-brainer to look for some other name.
I think book awards, and especially student choice awards, should do all they can to include, and pull people into that experience versus serve to exclude.
So, the decision was made to change the name and Jason Broughton, the state librarian announced it at the Dorothy Canfield Fisher conference last week, and the plan is moving forward to when we announce the next list. When kids vote on this list in the spring, next April they’ll be voting on the current list that which includes No Fixed Address. They will also have an opportunity to vote on a new name for the award. So, they’ll be given some options.
And they’ll cast their vote for what they’d like the book award to be called from this point forward.
We thought that would be a great way to again, gives kids some ownership in the name and also, will make them more familiar with it, and maybe more excited about this book award as well. So, yeah.
Jeanie: That’s a great plan. So, my guess is that you just announced this year’s winner, which students in grades four through eight vote for. What’s the winner, from this past list?
Annie: So, Alan Gratz’s book Refugee won for this year. What’s exciting about that is this is the second year in a row for him to be a winning author. Last year’s Project 1065 won. Kids are really excited about his books and, so he’s a winner again. Second year in a row.
Congrats to @AlanGratz 's Refugee which won this year's Dorothy Canfield Fisher Book Award! Mr. Gratz's selections have won two years in a row!! Great choice #vted readers!! #dorothyslist #vsla pic.twitter.com/q2sM3cQmzM
— Peoples Academy Library (@PALibraryVT) April 23, 2019
Jeanie: That’s wonderful. When I was both a kindergarten to sixth-grade school librarian and then again in seven to 12, these books flew off my shelf. You all put together such a lovely list. Some of my favorite middle grades reads have been on that list, including now Felix and No Fixed Address.
I wondered if there are some other gems on the list that you’d like to share with us.
— Camels Hump (@CamelsHumpMS) April 11, 2019
Annie: Yeah, so there’s a lot of great books, and I’m really excited about our new list.
We have some great Vermont author books on this year’s list.
We always like to try to put a creepy, scary book on the list every year. Small Spaces by Katherine Arden is a great creepy book, and also a great place book in terms of the setting in Vermont. This one’s going to fly off the shelves. I know for sure.
So, kids are kind of going on this field trip from Hell where they’re like stuck in this field and there are scary scarecrows and there is all kinds of mystery. It all revolves around this book that a woman was going to toss into a river and this kid grabbed it. Then strange things start happening. So, I can’t tell you more than that, but it’s going to be a really fun, scary book that I’m sure will fly off the shelves.
Jeanie: It sounds like a winner. I know one of the Vermont authors is also Ann Braden.
Annie: Oh, yes. In her book, The Benefits of Being an Octopus, again, one of my favorites on the list. And one that the minute I read it in a day, and I said, I could think of so many kids that I’ve worked with that this would be their experience. Again, it’s a book about a kid living in poverty, and living in a situation where her mom is not physically abused, but emotionally and mentally abused and stepping in, much like Felix to have to be the adult in that situation. and just take on a lot of responsibility as a middle school kid that shouldn’t have to be her life.
So, another resilient strong character that is struggling through some hard times in some, again, security around where home is and where there’ll be living and all those things that come with financial struggles and home stability struggles.
Jeanie: I loved that book so much, and I’m really excited because Anne Braden has agreed to come to our Middle Grades Institute conference in June and she’s going to be doing some workshops and meeting with educators and meeting with the students who come there for camps.
Annie: Oh, great. Yeah. I think kids will identify with that book so much. There are other issues too that I talked about and they’re like, gun rights and things like that. So, I think a lot of really interesting topics that kids will connect with and also be able to talk about and discuss with each other.
Another great Vermont author book is Just Like Jackie, which again, a girl who is biracial and lives with a grandparent, and is kind of trying to learn from him about her parents. But her grandfather is struggling with dementia or Alzheimer’s. And so she’s trying to cover up for him because again, that fear of what will happen to her family if people find out that her grandfather is not doing well.
Just so many of these books have such amazing, strong, resilient kids, and characters that I can’t wait for our students and our readers to connect with and learn about and hopefully identify with or learn from in some way.
Jeanie: I was delighted to see that Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed was on the list. That was a favorite of mine, and it’s set in Pakistan.
Annie: Yes. It’s one of those windows to the world about things that we might take for granted as, school and our day to day life isn’t always a given in other parts of the world. And so she’s a real hero for girls and the importance of education and risking her security and her family because of that.
She has to ultimately become an indentured servant for a wealthier man in her community. But while she’s there, she’s so strong in her beliefs about the power of education that she teaches another servant girl there to read who never had the opportunity to learn to read.
Jeanie: I love those books with fierce characters. She’s really fierce. I loved that one.
Annie: Front Desk is another great one by Kelly Yang, and again, this is about a Chinese American girl whose parents immigrated to the United States and live in California. They manage a hotel and she really steps up and manages the front desk. She’s good at math and her parents are trying to just make a living and make it in America. She again assumes a really important role in the success of the hotel and you also through her understand some of the prejudices and discrimination that Asian Americans experience. And then also some of the characters in the hotel. There is an African American man there who is experiencing some discrimination.
She starts to help readers understand the connection between prejudice and discrimination and how it cuts across a lot of different things in terms of our race, or socio-economic status and things like that.
So she’s a great character for shedding some light on that for all of us and for her own kind of understanding of that and wanting to do something about that. Her family tends to take in people that are either immigrating into the country and trying to get themselves established or experiencing some oppression in some way and they seek a little refuge in that hotel. And they help them out in the midst of their own, trying to get their feet on the ground and get established. So just the ability of people to care about each other even in spite of their own struggles and their own misfortunes in life.
Jeanie: That feels like a great companion to another book on the list: Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson. That’s also about security and stability. In this case, there are some stories around immigration. Another book about communities that support you when you’re struggling. She always writes just the right book at the right time.
This is another perfect example of that. Six kids are allowed to come together in a classroom every Friday afternoon just to talk without any adults there. So, as they become more comfortable and more able to share and be vulnerable with each other, we learn that one has a parent that might be deported, and he’s not sure if he’ll ever see his dad again. Another boy is experiencing racial profiling out on the streets of New York and is scared because of that to be out there, walking around. Another has a father who is incarcerated and is soon to be released, and she’s been living with her uncle in the meantime. So, her anticipation and worry about how that reunification will be.
So, kids with a range of issues that are real and everyday.
For some kids here in Vermont, some of those might be things they connect to, but some of them might be windows to experiences that they might not have here.
Because of our demographics and because of living in a more rural setting versus an urban setting. So, I love those books that can kind of transport kids to places with other kids where they just might not have those experiences but can again build that empathy and that understanding and that broader lens to think about things.
Jeanie: Just like the kids in Harbor Me having a dialogue and finding common ground. Our Vermont students can have a dialogue with a book and find that common ground.
Annie: Absolutely. That’s a great way to say that. I love that.
Jeanie: Well, I’m a huge fan of this book award program. As a librarian, I often had kids in small reading groups reading this book, teachers using them as readalouds, because they’re so good. It really refreshed their readaloud list and offered them something new.
I used to borrow books from the Department of Libraries book sets so that my kids could be reading these in small groups that could send you six or eight copies. So many of my students have loved this program over the years. So, just deep appreciation to the committee for continuing to provide a book list that is diverse and robust and has so many really beautiful stories on it.
Annie: Yeah, it’s a lot of work, but it’s a lot of great work and it’s… I think we’re working every year to be sure that it reflects a lot of different perspectives. There’s a lot of diverse points of view, representation of different kinds of families, of different kinds of kids, of different places in the world, things like that. And that we also have… try to have something for everyone.
I think every year, non-fiction can be a little bit of a struggle on this list. Just finding interesting non-fiction that’s not too much that wouldn’t be something kids would want to dive into a for pleasure reading. Because these are more pleasure reading kinds of books. But also the importance, that some kids are really drawn to non-fiction. So finding those non-fiction sometimes is our challenge.
We always usually like to have some graphic novels on the list because we know that those are super popular and we have some great ones on that list. The Prince and the Dressmaker in particular is just a wonderful book about acceptance and being true to who you are. It’s just great. It’s a great book and it’s flying off the shelves before it even got on the list. It was flying off the shelves in my library.
Jeanie: It’s a beautiful book. I love that one too.
Annie: Yes. Again, I think kids choose books for all different reasons and I think the artwork in that book has appeal for a lot of kids. The characters are amazing and the story is really a beautiful, important story.
Jeanie: Thank you to the whole committee, but to you also for creating a list where so many kids can see themselves. I really appreciate that. And they can get to know people unlike themselves as well.
Annie: Right. I think it’s great.
Jeanie: It’s been such a pleasure talking to you about No Fixed Address and about the awards list. Thank you so much for coming in Annie.
Annie: Well, thanks for having me and thanks for choosing this book. It is a great one on the list.
Jeanie: Yes. I hope everyone will check it out. You’re going to want to read it aloud to somebody, I know I did.