By Mary Downing Hahn
Available now from Clarion Books (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Mary Downing Hahn was one of my favorite authors in elementary school, so I like to keep up with what she's putting out. WHERE I BELONG reminds me of STEPPING ON THE CRACKS, one of my personal favorites. Both books have misfits coming together, bullying, and subplots about the effects of war.
Protagonist Brendan is a dreamy boy who failed sixth grade because he spent all his time in class drawing instead of doing his work. Neither his teacher nor his foster mother know how to connect to him. But in summer school, he makes a friend, Shea. After school, he finds the perfect tree to build a tree house. And there he meets the Green Man.
Brendan's real problem isn't his focus on art or his lack of attention to his other studies, but his lack of self esteem. He's been passed around from home to home since he was born, and thinks that no one loves him, especially not his current foster mother Mrs. Clancey. He thinks he's a constant disappointment to her and nothing but the source of a check. When Shea reaches out to him, he's afraid to even attempt to make friends. The only person Brendan can open up to about everything he's keeping inside is the Green Man, because the Green Man doesn't live in the real world of worries about the future and money and everything Brendan doesn't want to think about.
The bullying in WHERE I BELONG is intense. There's a group of troublemakers that run about stealing and otherwise making trouble and Brendan often finds himself in their crosshairs due to his long hair. Hahn is capable of nuanced bullies, but these boys are presented as just bad. But really, the story is about Brendan, and he is so wonderfully drawn that I can forgive that flaw in the novel.
Brendan's voice is absorbing and poignant. He is so down on himself, but so open to the magic in the world. His journey to forging new connections, making friends and finding his place, is beautiful. WHERE I BELONG isn't quite Hahn at her best, but it is a beautifully written story about a damaged, bullied boy finding his inner strength. There's a sudden tragedy and other elements that push WHERE I BELONG a little toward the treacly side, but it just manages to stay on the right side of that line.