In “Stay,” author Bobbie Pyron creates a story that will grab readers by the heartstrings as they root for practically everyone in this tale of homelessness, pride, friendship, mental illness, and above all — dogs. For in this middle grade novel, the dogs are important parts of the story and important — vitally — to those with whom they live.
It’s essential that young readers learn about others who may not be like them. But it’s equally essential that young readers read about others who are like them, so this story balances having a main character who enjoys her participation in a group much like the Girl Scouts and loves her family, but is frustrated by her father’s inability to find a job that will keep them in one place. For months, Piper and her family have moved from one place to another, searching for a job for her father that will allow them to settle in one location. Now, with only a suitcase of belongings, they’ve taken a bus to a new city.
They are from the South, and unused to cold weather. The early snowfall in October catches them unawares, as does the fact that at the temporary homeless shelter they find, their father cannot stay with their mom and the two children, Piper and her brother, Dylan. Piper is embarrassed when they eat at a soup kitchen, and she’s frustrated that Jewel, the homeless woman she’s seen with a small dog named Baby, is turned away from the community kitchen when she refuses to leave her dog outside so she can eat inside.
Readers get to know the homeless folks who live near the homeless shelter, the homeless who live outside in the park and under bridges, many of whom have dogs or a cat. And readers who might have thought that homeless people shouldn’t have dogs or cats because they can’t care for them will learn that just as some people care for their four-legged companions wonderfully while others don’t, many homeless people make sure that their companions eat first. And when those companions need medical care, the homeless people struggle to make sure that their animals receive what they need.
The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty estimates that the leading causes of homelessness for individuals include: “… lack of affordable housing, unemployment, poverty, mental illness and the lack of needed services, and substance abuse and the lack of needed services.” For homeless families, the causes are similar: “lack of affordable housing, unemployment, poverty, and low wages, in that order.”
“Stay” puts that information right on the pages; readers will be able to sympathize with Piper as her father tries to find work, and as the family must adjust their standard of living because of that situation. Piper learns that mental illness, and not being able to afford prescription medication that is necessary to one’s well-being, can cause an otherwise stable person to end up homeless.
What Piper learns over the course of the story is that sometimes it takes a community to help people. And she also learns that one person sticking up for someone can make a huge difference. While others just walk by Jewel and her dog, Baby, Piper doesn’t. She worries when Jewel is taken to the hospital and Baby is left behind. She helps feed and protect the dog. And when Baby ends up at the animal shelter, Piper helps Jewel’s friends protect Baby and help both Baby and Jewel. The people in the story, the plot, and the dogs all combine to make a gripping story that will be devoured by readers anxious to know how it all turns out.
“Stay” is about determination, selflessness, and going outside of one’s comfort zone to help others. It’s also about homelessness, mental illness, and poverty. Additionally, teachers will be able to use this novel to spark discussions about what it means to be an upstander. Should children feel the stigma of what happens to their parents? A family might end up homeless because of a parent’s shortcomings or because of bad luck, but should the child bear the brunt of that? Incidentally, another excellent novel that similarly addresses the question of children being judged for the actions of their parents is “The Paris Project” by Donna Gephart.
This book is a superb choice for any middle grade classroom or school library, and it’s a perfect choice for a book club. Pair it with “The Paris Project” and other books like graphic novels “Pie in the Sky” and “New Kid.” It’s about an important subject, and it’s handled beautifully.
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by the Katherine Tegen Books, the publisher, for review purposes.