I heard about this book on the CBC last year when it was published. This is the author's first novel and it has landed on a few lists over the past year. I knew I wanted to read it because it is set in Toronto and I love Canadian books where I have some connection. However, although I live in the same city as these characters, our lives are so different. The story follows students at Rouge Valley Public School and their families. It is told from the point of view of the kids and sometimes their parents. Entwined with that is the weekly report done by the woman who runs the literacy program at the school and emails from her supervisor. The kids are connected because they attend the literacy program with their parents. It tells of their struggles to find housing, keep food on the table, mental health struggles, challenges with the health and education systems, along with things all kids and teens (and adults) have to deal with like their identity.
As usual I don't like to give away anything about the plot, but what really intrigued me about this book is that you know these are true stories (it's a fictional book, but you know these same stories are playing out everyday across our city). I have no idea what people have to deal with everyday, I am so fortunate, so I need books like this to illuminate my mind. You know people are struggling but to hear exactly how they feel, what they think of people trying to "help" them, and the layers of their lives, not just that they are poor. I know that sound trite, but it's important. Those of us in positions of privilege often paint poverty with the same brush but if we want to help we need to realize there is not one simple answer for everyone. However, on the flip side, there are certain things that can be easily fixed. In the reports of the literacy centre, Ms. Hina remarks that she needs more snacks for the kids so they can have a proper breakfast. Her supervisor says it's a literacy centre, not a drop in breakfast program, but Ms. Hina sees that something as simple as a bowl of cereal and a piece of fruit will make all the difference in those kids' day.
One thing I often struggle with is how to help people that live in my own city. I tend to contribute to charities that are poverty based, such as food banks, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, and shelters, but I always wonder how I can do more than just make donations (not that they aren't very important to the work of those places). I know there is also an image of the "well-meaning white woman" who thinks she knows best and alienates the people she is trying to help. I don't know the answer, but understanding the nuances of poverty in this city is at least one place to start.
I would recommend this book to you. It doesn't matter if you live in Toronto or not; the characters in this book live where you live. When you see them on the street, you can look at their faces and perhaps see a bit more of their life than what you did before.
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