Seventh-grader Felix Knutsson and his mother, Astrid, find themselves living in a van after his grandmother dies and his mom has mismanaged her inheritance (and her life in general). Astrid is not a good parent. She is mouthy, judgmental, a liar, blind to her own faults, but she continually tells Felix she’s got a handle on things and he just needs to trust her and keep their secret from the authorities.
For ten months he follows his mom’s instructions while watching her get fired from job after job and while growing increasingly dismayed as she deceives and alienates just about every friend and acquaintance in their lives. While his home life disintegrates, Felix thrives in the French Immersion Program at his middle school. He reconnects with an old school buddy and makes new friends. When he learns of an opportunity to audition for a junior edition of a popular quiz show that promises big cash rewards, his friends and classmates help him prepare for it. He pins his hopes on winning the prize money and solving his family’s problems.
This fine novel powerfully depicts the problem of homelessness as seen through the eyes and mind of a twelve-year-old who tries to solve problems that are going unaddressed by the adult in charge. Yes, the mom can trace her problems back to childhood trauma and yes, she appears to suffer from clinical depression but no, that doesn’t give her a pass to ignore her responsibilities. Fortunately the novel portrays school administrators, teachers, social service and police staff, and neighborhood adults in a positive light. Everyone (including Astrid) shows growth and better self-awareness by the end of the story.
Offensive language isn’t an issue in this book but there are sexual references that will be picked up by the alert middle school reader (teenage masturbation, Astrid’s exchange of sexual favors for rent and blackmail of former lover for use of office address for school registration). There is thievery, lying, some domestic abuse, and LGBTQIA issues (two same-sex marriages, Felix’s dad is gay). None of this is in-your-face but you may not want to use this as a middle-school read-aloud classroom novel. On the high-school level, though, it might provoke some interesting and illuminating discussion.