Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate

23310699

Hardcover, 256 pages
Expected publication: September 22nd 2015 by Feiwel & Friends
Source: Raincoast Books

Books are oft touted as reflections of contemporary society: an assertion that is argued against just as much as it is argued for. Scholars say that deconstructing fictional characters often reveal the society and times they were created in and for. Others say balderdash.

Whichever side of the argument your support falls on, the fact remains that Crenshaw is very much relevant to contemporary economic times. As an adult reading this book, I felt a peculiar mix of grief and helplessness which led to anger because I can’t feel helpless without feeling angry at feeling helpless.

Jackson, the very young protagonist, and his family are going through rough financial times which has led him and his sister to become acquainted with loss and sacrifice more closely than children ought to be. This is not the first time Jackson has experienced penury though; the first time his father lost his job, Jackson’s family also lost their home and had to live in their van for a long while until they found another place to live, to work, and to call home.

The last time his family became too poor, Jackson, a very pragmatic and logical sort, had an imaginary friend he called Crenshaw who helped him get through the dark days. This time, too, Crenshaw, a man-sized feline appears just when things start getting tough.

There has been a recent influx of imaginary friend novels and a lot of them have similar premises and themes. What sets Crenshaw apart is not just Crenshaw himself but also the thread of very real despair and panic that runs through the narrative. It is unbelievably sobering seeing Jackson try to come to terms with losing his things when they’re sold in a garage sale to raise money for things like food. His sister misses her trash can. Can we pause to take in the tragedy of that?

“I…I miss my things and I don’t want to live in a car with no potty and also my tummy keeps growling,” she whispered.

Then there are the little ways Jackson and his sister combat their hunger. The little games they make up to appease themselves and the stories they tell themselves to take off the sharp edge of hunger. Hunger is corrosive; it eats away at you until you are nothing but want. Still, Jackson is determined to remain strong even though the idea of losing his home and return to living in the van scares him more than he cares to admit.

My heart broke at Jackson’s determined stoicism. Crenshaw is important but not because he shields Jackson from the harsher aspects of life as imaginary friends are wont to do; he is important because he forces Jackson to confront what scares him. Crenshaw infuses Jackson’s bleak life with a magic that is invaluable because of its improbability. Jackson’s refusal to believe in Crenshaw makes his eventual capitulation to the idea of Crenshaw far sweeter.

Applegate captures Jackson and Robin (Jackson’s little sister) so precisely that their thoughts and dialogues spill over with emotional sincerity which gives the narrative a whole lot more impact than it would have had otherwise.

I felt the way you do when you take off an itchy sweater on a cold day: relieved you’re rid of it, but surprised how chill the air’s turned out to be.

Crenshsaw is invaluable and not just for its literary merits. Jackson and his sister, Robin, are not just fictional characters but are representations of very real children all around the world who are facing hunger and extreme situations. The novel is slim and the narrative relatively simple and perhaps it is this very simplicity that renders it profound. Understanding poverty through the eyes of a child is very grim and realizing that there is no overlord to blame for their hunger is even worse.

Children who read Crenshaw will be able to place themselves in Jackson’s shoes and experience his poverty and his fear at being homeless. The novel together with discussions about hunger and poverty can instill empathy and sympathy in children. Teachers can use this novel to springboard into projects such as a canned food drive or fundraising to help reduce child hunger.

Read this book with your child. Let them appreciate what they have and help them give to those who don’t.