Review by Sara Francoeur
Penguin Random House, February 2020
400 pages, hardcover, $23.99 CAD, ISBN 9780399539039
Ages 10-14, Grades 5-7
Middle Grade, Contemporary Realism
“So you just live in the van?”
I glare at him, like he’s thrown a rock through our window. “So you just live in a gigantic house?”
He leans away. “I didn’t mean—I’m…” He looks across the street to his house. “It can get lonely with just two of us. Lately, we don’t say much. I stare out the windows a lot.”
I can’t believe he’s complaining. “Thanks for the chocolate,” I say, standing. I sound the opposite of thankful. But who cares? I’m just a fish in a fish bowl he decided to feed. Everyone knows the guppies don’t make it.
When someone you love is struggling with a big problem, all you want to do is help. But what if they don’t want your help? In Parked by Danielle Svetcov, two 12-year-olds develop an unlikely friendship while tackling hardships that would challenge most adults.
Jeanne Ann, a book-loving no-nonsense girl, has just travelled from Chicago to San Francisco in an orange van nicknamed “the carrot.” Along with her diner-cook mother Joyce, Jeanne Ann arrives hoping her uprooted life will soon settle so she can attend school in the fall and get back to her favourite pastime: reading books from the library. But when a job and accommodations do not materialize as expected, Jeanne Ann and Joyce end up living in their van at the edge of a city park.
Cal lives with his restauranteur mother in a large modern home facing the park. After noticing the homeless inhabitants across the street for months, Cal becomes increasingly concerned with the arrival of the orange van and the young person who appears to be living there. A tentative friendship forms as he tries to help, but Jeanne Ann is understandably hesitant. With each passing day, food money dwindles, and Jeanne Ann feels less and less optimistic about her future.
Svetcov employs the setting to illustrate complicated contrasts: Jeanne Ann and Cal live on the same block, yet their homes are vastly different; Cal sits sketching from the large glass window of his modern home, eating pastries from his mother’s restaurant while Jeanne Ann resides in and around the van, slowly selling off meagre possessions to pay for nonperishable food. Detailed descriptions of restaurants and food not only leave your mouth watering but help highlight a message about food insecurity, creating an uncomfortable irony that Joyce is a cook by profession, yet she has no money to properly feed herself and her daughter.
Parked tackles important issues in a format that is easy to digest for young readers. Svetcov does not shy from realism, including the neighbourhood rally to evict the homeless from the park and Jeanne Ann’s inability to bathe and wash her clothing. Regardless of whether the reader completely digests the social issues in the plot, the emotional plight of the characters will keep any reader invested in the outcome of the story.
A highlight of the novel’s text design is the addition of overdue notices in a typewriter-font, addressed—but undelivered—to Jeanne Ann from the public library branch she left behind in Chicago. These notices are inserted periodically between chapters and include handwritten notes from the librarian hoping to find Jeanne Ann. These fun additions to the text tell readers that not only is Jeanne Ann’s presence missed by the doting and watchful Chicago librarian, but also that Jeanne Ann’s reading habit includes an impressive array of must-read titles with dizzying variety.
Cal and Jeanne Ann help to serve up a host of lessons not only about homelessness, but also about respect, perseverance, and the struggles of working single parents. Ultimately these two characters teach us that standing by a friend through good times and bad is often more important than being a problem solver. Parked wraps up with a cheerful ending that leaves the characters empowered to build a secure future, but also supported by a community. Although the social issues presented in this book might seem heavy, the matter-of-fact clarity provided by the young protagonists—in addition to the hopeful and humorous dialogue—make this book a true pleasure to read.
Sara Francoeur lives with her family in a beachy neighbourhood just outside of Vancouver, B.C. With a degree in comparative religion and a background in fashion, Sara now studies creative writing at UBC.