"review" · concenter · fiction · juvenile lit · mystery · poet-related · recommend · wondermous

{book} hold fast

a lengthy, shockingly spoiler-free, post for Blue Balliett’s latest. This isn’t an apology, merely an acknowledgment. There are so many lovely and terribly relevant explorations … 

hold fast cover

Hold Fast by Blue Balliett

Scholastic Press, 2013.

hardcover, 274 pages.

Where is Early’s father? He’s not the kind of father who would disappear. But he’s gone . . . and he’s left a whole lot of trouble behind.

As danger closes in, Early, her mom, and her brother have to flee their apartment. With nowhere else to go, they are forced to move into a city shelter. Once there, Early starts asking questions and looking for answers. Because her father hasn’t disappeared without a trace. There are patterns and rhythms to what’s happened, and Early might be the only one who can use them to track him down and make her way out of a very tough place.

With her signature, singular love of language and sense of mystery, Blue Balliett weaves a story that takes readers from the cold, snowy Chicago streets to the darkest corner of the public library, on an unforgettable hunt for deep truths and a reunited family.~publisher’s comments.

Important: late Middle English: from medieval Latin important- ‘being of consequence’, from the verb importare ‘bring in’.  Adjective: of great significance or value, likely to have a profound effect on success, survival, or well-being; having high rank or status; significantly original and influential.

I am sketching out a list of “important juvenile fiction books and authors.” You should know that I think books and writers are important period, but this list is for those who place intimate conversations of a social and creative consciousness into the hands of young people. Blue Balliett is located with indelible ink on this list. With Hold Fast, Balliett has used her considerable gift  to not only pen a compelling mystery, but to raise awareness for the plight of our homeless children. She also returns with her signature take on the brilliance of young minds. If you’ve read Balliett, you understand how singular she is, and she just keeps getting better and better.

Meet the Pearls:

“Taken with a cell phone camera, this family portrait: Dashel Pearl, his wife, Summer, and their kids, Early and Jubilation, a daughter and a son. They live in Woodlawn, once feared as the home of Chicago’s most powerful gang, but now a quieter place. The family sits in two tidy rows on the chipped steps of a brick building, knees to backs, parents behind kids, hands sealing the foursome. Boy by girl behind girl by boy: symmetrical and smiling. The father is pale, the mother dark, the kids cocoa and cinnamon. Eyes in this family are green, amber, and smoky topaz.” (5)

They live in the largest apartment they can afford: a one bedroom primarily furnished with found objects. Dashel gets around by bicycle year round to get to public transit.* She stays home with 4 year old Jubie. Early, 11, attends school. They are saving for a house, like the one they pass on family walks “that invites dreams” (7).

Dashel’s love of reading and words with meaning is infectious. The family keeps notebooks of quotes and words. He tells his children, “words are everywhere and for everyone […] words are free and plentiful” (6); and they are empowering. Dash also shares his love of Langston Hughes. “What’s the rhythm, Langston?” is often heard. Dash, adopted as a baby and then lost those parents young, grew up in a number of foster homes. “He didn’t have a parent or grandparent to give him advice, but Langston seemed to do just as well. […] Dash had told Early that this famous poet was a rainbow mix, too, like Sum and probably Dash himself: Langston had African American, white, Jewish, and Native American roots. And, like Dash, Langston had grown up without much love or a steady home” (87). Hughes spoke often of dreams and their importance, and this spoke to the Pearls.

When Dash goes missing the readers are equally unsure what might’ve happened to him. It doesn’t look good even before his disappearance is complicated by the arrival of criminals breaking-into the Pearl’s home in a pretty scary sequence that leaves Sum, Early and Jubie without wallet or home. We are quickly introduced to the everyday realities of families who haven’t had it as good as the Pearl’s. The neighbor lady (whom they only know by sight) and others are surprised by Sum’s ignorance of how to navigate social rescue/welfare organizations and numbers. Worse is when profiling really kicks in by our greater institutions—and noticeably not by the homeless shelter workers.

“Something terrible has happened to keep my husband away, we’re terrified, have had to leave our home, have been robbed, lost our savings, and our family has done nothing wrong. Now, aren’t the police supposed to protect people like us?” (72)

“I realized something awful in that room today. That when you’re this poor and without money or an address, hardly anyone thinks you’re worth listening to or helping. Just the words living in a shelter make you you someone the police aren’t too worried about, less than your average citizen when it comes to rights. And now that Dash is missing, the fact that he’d been a man with a job, a family, and a home doesn’t seem to count. Seeing how excited the detectives were about [spoiler], I knew they cared more about [spoiler] than the man. Or us.” (132)

Early’s response to the latter being the understatement of the year: “Dang,” Early said, swallowing hard. “That’s scary.” It is of interest that the mother’s realization is expressed well after Early’s experience at school where children can be really cruel and adults can be inept. Children see and know more than they are often credited. And their resilience is not an excuse to continue to ignore their vulnerabilities.

The novel clings to the compassionate as it collides with the hardness of people and life. Balliett moves the reader in thoughtful ways, using the mystery and Early’s youth and smarts to guide the reader through a book that refuses to look away from its subjects. I love how authors employ humor to counter-weigh the complex and often ugly moments of a book, but I savor and admire the juvenile fiction author who can rely on other, rarer, charms. Balliett threads hope to counter-weigh, she employs a light, and this is a different smile, and it comes before the story’s end.

The structure of the novel is of import to the pacing of its heart-felt, brain-felt 274 pages. The Pearls, we learn, keep a notebook of onomatopoeia. The chapters (but for the first and last) are named after “C” words that are onomatopoeia. Each have smaller sections that begin with each word and hold thematically. The breaks move and relieve the reader along a linear timeline of the 3rd-person limited variety. We follow Early who uses words and rhythms in ways the book demonstrates. Each of those “C” words come with definitions where in the chapters reiterate their meaning. Early shares words, the author introduces each character with the intention of their names. Dashel “Dash” (p 15) increases with significance in characterization—and in light of the title: Hold Fast. And of course, that opening definition and intention that opens the novel grounds everything:

“Home, from the Middle English hom and Old English ham. Noun: a place to live by choice, sometimes with family or friends; a haven; a place of origin, comfort, and often of valued memories.

“By the end of the 2012 school year, an estimated thirty thousand children in the city of Chicago were without a home. This number does not include those living in the surrounding suburbs, and is thought to be low.”

According to the “Acknowledgment” at the end of the book (after p 274), Balliett did a lot of research, talked to a lot of people. The novel would portray a sense of what homelessness would look like for Early and her mother and brother, and touch on the experiences of other’s situations with equal gravity. Some of the compositions are stark, others strongly inferred, and all of it touching.

“Facts on the homeless vary, depending on what you read and how statistics are collected and presented. Shelter rules also vary. Not to be questioned, however, are the harsh realities of homelessness. Sadly, they have nothing to do with fiction.”

I mentioned hope, and one such beacon is Early. Early keeps her head up, and both her self-awareness and the awareness of her surroundings is necessary to this hope-fullness. Aged 11, Early is a creative force to be reckoned with—though I have no reason to believe she is unique in her ability rise up against the hardships that would hold her down. She relies on the hope of seeing her father and rightly believes in her ability in solving the mystery of his disappearance. She has doubts, which coincide with the reader’s, artfully instigated by the clever author. But she has notions that keep her going, that enquiring eye of hers searching out rhythms, patterns, riddles and connections to be solved, or at the very least contemplated. We have the mystery unfolding to keep us turning pages, but time is harder on Early and she needs more than the mystery to balance out despair. Enter the energizing effect of a creative energy that empowers and enlists hope and fits snugly into the import of holding fast to our ability to dream.

Enlightened by her situation, head-up and engaged, Early starts to notice, to really look at people (thinking of Waive) and her surroundings—and to question: “How come there are so many homes standing empty in Chicago and so many people like us who don’t have a home? How come those empty homes aren’t being fixed up and filled with people who need a place to live” (171)?

It is a question Balliett bids the reader to linger over in her “Note:” “As of October 2011, the city of Chicago reported roughly fifteen thousand abandoned buildings, most the result of foreclosure. They sit silent, haunting the neighborhoods that surround them. With an estimated thirty thousand homeless kids in this city, the questions are obvious. Luckily, so are the dreams.” “The dreams” are a nod to Early’s idea for project (202-3) and its yield (253-7). Balliet novels believe in a children’s capacity to be powerful agents of change. That children are brilliant.

Brilliant: late 17th century: from French brillant ‘shining’. Adjective: (of light or colour) very bright; exceptionally clever or talented; outstanding; impressive; very good, excellent, or marvelous. Noun:a diamond of brilliant cut.

And it isn’t only in Hold Fast that someone(s) would thieve [from] the brilliant.

There are some points in the novel that are especially difficult. One is what and how much Summer (the mother) leaves to and confides in Early. In a lot of ways it is necessary in informing Early and the reader for the sake of the plot. But it also points to Balliett’s bold consistency of character and allowing for that kind of discomfort. Jubie is 4 and a product of the environs of those 4 years; this adds incredible tension. As for Early and Summer: children in tough circumstances grow up quickly at the loss of childhood, and (no matter how good a parent) the grief and depression of an adult after the loss of a loved-one takes a toll. Summer is left very much alone, the family alienated of relatives and community. Add the burden of societally placed barriers and inconsistencies and there is a lot of unfairness to pass around. There are plenty of places in which we could intervene. Hold Fast relays grim realities even as it models a compassion toward those too oft robbed of the dignity of its reception. Compassion is a first step.

Dreams (by Langston Hughes)

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

Dash places this poem in the family notebook (54), and the next poem in sequence is Hughes’ “What happens to a dream deferred?”, which reflects a real life tension in the novel. Hold Fast’s antidote for despair is to continue to hope and dreams fuel our hope,** while minding Hughes question and the final line of its poem.

Balliet’s incorporation of such impacting artists and their translation into such intimate spaces, such as a young person’s mind, provides an incalculable worth to her novels. Balliet writes good mysteries, mysteries with unexpected textures, with complexities that make for a rich and rewarding read. I love how empowered and inspired her young protagonists are towards using all of their selves creatively and determinedly.

I find Balliet entertaining, but I acknowledge that a lot of the thrill comes from admiring her craftiness. But does “entertaining” necessarily translate as “mindless?” There are plenty of fluffy reads to excite many a reader and they hold a place, but I do hope those many find a more challenging read, an important book now and again that gifts an awareness that makes us a better human.

recommendation: ages 8-13, boys & girls, would be nice to read w/ a grown-up and plan some sort of service project, to say nothing of penning dreams and starting notebooks. for the creative-minded (aka anyone); for bibliophiles; the impact of word, book, libraries, teachers, and poets is awesome in Hold Fast.

of note: it would be tempting to refer Balliett books to those kids who have tested into gifted programs, whether it be reading, writing, math and/or spatial…or any who benefit from atypical curriculum. but one of the many things that impresses me with Balliett’s books, is how you can pick out adults who believe in the potential of the child protagonist and invest in them, sharing their time, intellect, creative play… In honor of Balliett, I wouldn’t dare underestimate any child’s needs or abilities. I would encourage and child (and adult) to give one of her novels a go. Hold Fast is as good as any a starting place.

*noticed the other (very wintry) day the sheer number of Denver’s service sector/day laborers that use bikes to get around; w/ educated guesses that they have to use them to reach public transit as well, bus lines and bike lanes relatively wasted on multi-car-owning neighborhoods.

**A Dianna Wynn Jones quote comes to mind (thanks to Sarah), “nobody ever solved a problem while believing it was hopeless.”

I pulled my definitions from the Oxford English Dictionary (US version)

my review of The Danger Box.

"review" · concenter · fiction · juvenile lit · poet-related · recommend · wondermous


7118768 by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Little, Brown, and Company, 2010

(hardcover) 217 pages

Twelve-year-old Lanesha lives in a tight-knit community in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward. She doesn’t have a fancy house like her uptown family or lots of friends like the other kids on her street. But what she does have is Mama Ya-Ya, her fiercely loving caretaker, wise in the ways of the world and able to predict the future. So when Mama Ya-Ya’s visions show a powerful hurricane–Katrina–fast approaching, it’s up to Lanesha to call upon the hope and strength Mama Ya-Ya has given her to help them both survive the storm.

Ninth Ward is a deeply emotional story about transformation and a celebration of resilience, friendship, and family–as only love can define it. ~inside cover.

Jewell Parker Rhodes’ Ninth Ward is proof that working from prescribed lists can be good for you. The jacket art by Shino Arihara is appealing, and the synopsis is okay, but when I’d seen Ninth Ward on the new releases shelf in the Children’s Library I passed it up.  Don’t be the idiot I was and pass up this book.

Ninth Ward is entertaining and informative, and life-affirming. Rhodes doesn’t weigh the reader down with grim realities, though they are there, unavoidably. While Ninth Ward is a “deeply emotional story about transformation and a celebration of resilience, friendship, and family—as only love can define it,” it isn’t claustrophobic, as I feared it might be. The rhythmic prose are delicate. And Lanesha (protagonist/first person narrator) is of such a practical mind, she isn’t weighed down in pitiable states—how is that going to be helpful.

Lanesha is lovely. A girl with feet ever rooted in two worlds. Her late mother’s family is from Uptown and her father and Mama Ya-Ya is of the Ninth Ward. She sees the living and the ghosts (which would have sold me on the book had I known earlier). She is pragmatic and whimsical. She is a child to be cared for and a caregiver to the aging Mama Ya-Ya. At 12 she is on the cusp, both child/woman.

Lanesha is a strong and determined girl who’s take on the world around her is a blessing to the reader. Rhodes’ paints a vivid picture of Lanesha’s surroundings, and populates it with breathing characters. She does this with a poet’s hand, spare images, skillfully selected interactions. The 217 pages are not heavy with text or paragraphs or tiny fonts. I do not know how many words make up the story, but it is magnificent what Rhodes accomplishes in Ninth Ward.

The Reader gets to know Lanesha, the community, the neighbors. You get the backstory interwoven with daily interaction. Plenty of moments touch, and promise to linger, but the days (chapters) are progressing toward something. It isn’t just Hurricane Katrina or the aftermath…the flooding.

Rhodes skillfully relays the events leading up to the Hurricane, Mama Ya-Ya predicting the storm, the weatherman reports, the preparations, the evacuations, the fear, the anxiety of those stuck where they are… She is informative and interesting, and unyielding in her balance of parallel lines, of the preparation that goes into surviving, and not just storms such as hurricanes. That what you need is Love is not a trite statement in Ninth Ward; it is not kitsch.

The world can be a hard place sometimes, Lanesha. You have to have heart. You have to be strong. Parents want their children to grow up to be strong. Not just any strong, mind you, but loving strong. (144)

Lanesha is a resplendent daughter, a daughter rooted in the old ways but birthed in the the present; learning and becoming the signs of both. Her mother lingers, but she is raised by her community, influenced by the 82 year old Mama Ya-Ya and the young school teacher Miss Johnson; a remnant of the past and a reminder of the future.

Lanesha is a beacon, a hopefulness, an elegantly designed bridge both strong and beautiful. She is the Ninth Ward, she is a girl represented, she is New Orleans, she is all the heritage of her people past and present.

And Lanesha isn’t the only character worthy of an essay, or housing symbolic attributes.


The pacing of the story slows, housing chapters in a day and then two. The build up to the storm sweeps you into the heart of it, but it is after the hurricane hits that another level of suspense is revealed in the creeping of the water, the waiting for rescue. The stillness in the pacing creates anxiety. The time Lanesha and other—(why would I spoil this) spend on the roof is a natural enough shift, but noticeable. If Ninth Ward would be both Realist (magical or otherwise) and Allegory, Rhodes maintains coherence in her story telling technique—despite my frustrations. I was in the latter pages, racing toward the ending, wanting to have an epilogue—what happens to Lanesha, and TaShon and …

I was running out of pages and the daylight was dragging itself out. Yes, I realize Patience is a virtue with which I struggle. Alas, the Reader has to stick with Lanesha. A peek at the ending tells you nothing.

While the pacing shifts, necessarily, the rhythmic narrative voice of Lanesha carries the Reader. The ending does not disappoint. The journey, the story from the beginning up until the end, predicts the trajectory of an epilogue (as there is no “epilogue”). Rhodes leaves you caring about the outcome, artfully instilling Hope. And Hope carries the reader into dreaming the future for Lanesha and the Ninth Ward. Hope, and the confidence that Love may actually be the key to survival. In the closing of the story, in Lanesha, Rhodes seems to say: look what love built, how can we not move forward with confidence.


Somewhat of an aside:

I’d just finished Blue Balliett’s The Danger Box and I had to smile when (in Ninth Ward) Lanesha picks up a purple pen with which to write. I thought about what Zoomy and his Gam (in The Danger Box) said about Purple, that it was the color of believing.

And like Blue Balliett, Jewell Parker Rhodes’ story relays a strong belief in the necessity of perspective/perceptions in/through her characters.

Folks say, “School gives his mother a babysitter so she can work.” I don’t believe that. Andrew is just a different smart. Like if you say, “The world is flat,” Andrew’s mind cuts it up into squares. Like the way my eyes see things that others swear aren’t there. (28).

The differences in seeing things is important to survival, to the community, to the greater world. Great things can be accomplished through the unexpected, especially when they are equipped with a loving foundation, something both Zoomy and Lanesha have. Children and Adults alike should be reading these books.


Ninth Ward is recommended starting at Age 10… I agree, not due to themes, but to comprehension and inherent value. This is a great Middle-Grade book—well-suited.

Also, Ninth Ward begs to be read aloud—all books should, but this one is particularly good for it.

check out: The Happy Nappy Bookseller’s interview with Jewel Parker Rhodes, as I plan to in just a moment…

"review" · fiction · juvenile lit · recommend

inspired by…

The Purple Quill 

Who am I? 

Blue Balliett.



“Purple is the color of believing.” The Danger Box


Blue Balliett is a fascinating and inspiring woman, and her books are great, too. Her Chasing Vermeer (2004) had an incredible, highly acclaimed debut. The books to follow in the sense of a series The Wright 3 (2006) and The Calder Game (2008) were just as wonderful.

Balliett has established herself as a truly original voice in Juvenile Fiction, especially in the Mystery genre. Much of her originality is found in her protagonists. Balliett is an example of how you need not (nor should not) depend on stereotype to develop the “right” character for the case. Her characters are “coincidently” perfectly suited to solve the mysteries at hand.

Balliett also does her research and weaves fact into the consciousness of the story. The investigators’ enthusiasm is infectious and nothing historical is dry, nor is it unimportant. Events hundreds of years past find connection in the present, and such value is significant to the story. The protagonists learn about themselves, or find validation in being unusual. Unusual reads Gifted or Meant in Balliett’s books. The stories value distinction and considering differing perspectives. The books value the mind and all the senses, and even the unexplained, the happenstance.  Balliett is for curious minds; thinkers, observers, recorders; i.e. children. “All kids can be amazing problem-solvers and powerful thinkers, no matter what they are good at doing or whether they’re successful in school. That belief is at the heart of everything that I write.”

I mentioned that in Balliett’s stories the past helps inform the present, connections are made. What is lovely in The Danger Box is that the present story, and the very present character of Zoomy help inform the past. A historical figure is made more human, drawn to be considered in a compassionate and thoughtful way, because of Zoomy, and Lorrol.

Lorrol (yes, Laurel “misspelled” ) aka Firecracker girl, is the impetus behind The Gas Gazette: A Free Newspaper about a Mysterious Soul, whose issues you will find throughout the book in thoughtful and chronological progression. Lorrol and Brain boy/Zoomy share facts/trivia and quotes via a series of first person statements, followed by a “Who am I?” and a thought-provoking (thematic) question. Would love to see this inspire Elementary School classrooms. They are marvelous, and not the least frivolous. I love Balliett’s creativity.

That Balliett places her stories in real places with real mysteries are inspiring. “My dream is that one of the kids who reads The Danger Box really will find this missing treasure one day. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction…” I love who Balliett imagines could find the missing treasure in The Danger Box.  “It seemed like seeing wasn’t a big part of this, because so many things looked like one thing and then turned out to be another” (271).

I enjoyed every one of Balliett’s previous three novels. The Danger Box surpassed them all. Perhaps that is not a fair statement. While fans of Balliett can be assured that The Danger Box is certainly her work, the new characters have shaped a new adventure, and a different way of approaching the Mystery.  While I believe, Balliett has offered a fresh approach/voice to Juvenile Mysteries with her previous three, in The Danger Box she is again pushing boundaries in offering a new perspective.

“The idea that so-called weaknesses can become strengths-that intrigues me. Are there also times when a physical disability can allow a person to accomplish things that others might not? I think this is an exciting question."

Protagonists or deuteragonists with disabilities are good, and are hopefully becoming more available. (I know there are people who follow this, feel free to chime in, or read the book and come back and comment.)  The question Balliett asks is exciting, “Are there also times when a physical disability can allow a person to accomplish things that others might not?” Her answer in the way of The Danger Box is compelling. What better setting for a question like this than a story involving Charles Darwin, evolution, and the book’s opening game with an eye on ‘survival of the fittest’?

Besides merely giving characters physical disadvantages, she gives them social/cultural ones as well. The Danger Box is a good book for a diverse audience, but will prove quite valuable to the “majority”; no one should be underestimated. Balliett spurs critical thinking, while convincing the reader of the value of it.

Balliett is fantastic with the descriptors, and her charm in the application of them, much of this has to do with the first person narrator Zoomy and his youthful take on the world:

Stick your finger straight out from the tip of your nose: That’s how far I can focus clearly. To see farther, I have to put on my glasses, which are heavy. The lenses are about as thick as a homemade oatmeal cookie, and the frames are brown. With glasses, you can see my whole eye and I guess it looks far away, like it’s maybe in the next room." (20)

I’m shorter than other kids my age, and I have thick hair that grows north, south, east, and west, even after a buzz cut. Gumps, who doesn’t have much hair, says I’m lucky to have it.

I have veins that don’t look blue through the skin on my hands, and I don’t’ get sunburned like my grandparents do. We all think I have more practical skin than the other Chamberlains. (21)

Slap, whack, smack—rubber beach sandals on a marble staircase can sound like firecrackers. (67)

Balliett has offered the Reader great characters, setting, and a nicely paced plot; as well as thought-provoking questions that the Reader can take home with them. So be careful. The book isn’t just called The Danger Box, it is one.


The Danger Box by Blue Balliett

Scholastic Press, 2010.

Hardcover, 320 pages

Recommended ages are 9-12; Seems reasonable.

A boy in a small town who has a different way of seeing.

A mischievous girl who won’t stay in one place.

A mysterious notebook .

A fire.

A stranger.

A death.

These are some of the things you’ll find within The Danger Box, the new mystery from bestselling author Blue Balliett.

note: Chasing Vermeer, The Wright 3, & The Calder Game are all Scholastic Press as well. And should be read; their trade paperbacks @ Powells books are embarrassingly affordable.


Yesterday’s quotes in the post “inspired” can be attributed to these sites: Blue Balliett’s Bio @ Scholastic Press, including the pop-ups: Author’s Note, Q&A on writing, and Blue’s Favorite Books; and Blue Balliet’s Website, mainly The Danger Box page. Do check them out. 


I was made aware that Balliett had The Danger Box out via “Welcome to My Tweendom,” her review