By Joan Bauer
Available now from Viking (Penguin)
Let's all take a moment to appreciate the cover of ALMOST HOME. First, and most importantly, the adorable puppy. But it's appropriate for the intended audience without alienating crossover audiences. It could be the cover of a women's fiction or chick-lit novel as easily as a middle-grade one. Classy.
Now, the blurb and press release had me running for the hills. A girl named Sugar Mae Cole becomes homeless and goes into foster care with her rescue dog Shush? It sounds like a recipe for a treacly after-school special. Luckily for ALMOST HOME, I adore Joan Bauer. HOPE WAS HERE and RULES OF THE ROAD are two old favorites. I was willing to give ALMOST HOME a chance because I trust Bauer.
Anyone else who has read Bauer will recognize her stamp on ALMOST HOME. The cheerful heroine who excels at surviving her unprivileged environment - check. A heroine who works despite her youth - check. A colorful and encouraging supporting cast - check. Sugar and her mother are going through a tough time, but they manage to get the help they need and encounter mostly friends. It works because the book is intended for a younger audience and Bauer has the characters acknowledge that things could be much worse (ending up dead on the streets worse) and that Sugar has it pretty good despite her homelessness.
Sugar is a touch more precious than Bauer's other heroines. She mails people thank you notes, for instance. She also believes that Shush was put on Earth to help people . . . which I'll give her, since that's obviously the purpose of dogs. I'll also admit to skipping over some of the poetry she writes exploring her feelings. It's a good outlet for a twelve-year-old girl, but the sentiments are almost too raw. (Bauer does nail a voice for the poetry that sounds like a talented young girl rather than an experienced author.)
Despite the age neutrality of the cover, I felt a little too old for ALMOST HOME. But I think it's a great way to introduce kids to the reality that some of their classmates might be facing or to comfort other children that there are people in the system who care and they will find a home eventually. It's a sweet, optimistic novel tackling a tough subject.