One of the (approx. ten billion) things I didn’t anticipate about having kids was that their reading lives would shift so much. Of course I knew their reading level would change. But I suppose I didn’t foresee that what they liked to read would change so much, as well. A child who started off liking Junie B. Jones for the comedy may later want nothing but dark fantasy, and still later want endless stories about children like herself. A child who started off racking the shelves for books about dogs may turn to other nonfiction (sports! mummies! the Titanic!) and then to novels on those topics and then to graphic novels and then to how-to-draw.
What did I think would happen? I guess I thought I’d hand them books I liked to read, for the rest of their lives, amen. Ha! It’s way better than that. They turn out to be their own people, thank goodness.
Proof: this summer, my daughter read a book called Gaby, Lost and Found, by Angela Cervantes, and asked me to read it so we could talk about it. I think she picked it up because of the cat on the cover, and then discovered it was more complicated than a cute kitty story.
This middle-grade novel is about Gaby Ramirez Howard, an “amazing sixth-grader.” Her beloved mother, an undocumented worker from Honduras, has been deported after a raid on the factory where she was working. Gaby is now in the awkward custody of her father, who left the family years before and knows Gaby only from occasional birthday and Christmas visits. He works hard, but neglects Gaby mostly out of ignorance, leaving her alone much of the time and letting her get herself up for school and find her own food. Gaby clings to the idea that her mother will be able to find a way back to the US, and in the meantime, she gets support from her best friend Alma and her school community (barring a few kids who tease her about the deportation.)
At the same time, Gaby’s class is doing a service project at the local no-kill animal shelter. Gaby herself, a skilled writer, is asked to write some flyers so that the shelter can advertise the animals they have for adoption. Helping the animals find “forever homes” helps Gaby realize that she, too, needs a home while she’s waiting for things with her mother to be resolved — she can’t help animals if she can’t help herself. The ending of the book is bittersweet, but honest and warm.
Cervantes doesn’t tiptoe around the issues in this book. Immigration, deportation, unemployment and underemployment, and kids having to take on more than they can really handle because of adult policies are all major themes of this book. Yet Gaby, Lost and Found is not depressing or heavy-handed. It’s a warm, hopeful book without being saccharine or unrealistic. My daughter (who is about to go into sixth grade herself) and I talked about the political issues, and also about how easy it is to assume everyone’s home, or everyone’s life, is like yours. Literature is a door into understanding otherwise, a door that keeps on opening.