Fly Away Home
by Eve Bunting. Illustrated by Ronald Himler (Houghton, 1991 ISBN 0-395-55962-6 Paperback, Hardcover). Picture Book. Grades 2+.
This review by Carol Otis Hurst first appeared in Teaching K-8 Magazine.
This is a sensitive book about a boy and his dad who live at the airport. Homelessness is not a common subject for any children's book and a picture book on this small family is a daring deed for Bunting and Himler to attempt. They had to walk a fine line to tell us this story. A misstep in any direction would have brought condescension, over-simplification, false cheerfulness or hopelessness and Fly Away Home is free of all those things.
As with any picture book, it's good to start with the cover. On this one we have the dejected father in an airport waiting area with his son leaning over the seat to drape his arms across his father's shoulders. Both are clean, dressed in plain blue (the boy narrator warns often about the dangers of being noticed.) The father's hands hold a large blue bag and beside him on the seat is a smaller one. We'll learn in the book, that these contain their only possessions. In the background are a man and woman obviously waiting to welcome travelers off the flight that may be arriving even now. Not under strictures to be unnoticed, this couple wears bright colors and the woman carries what might be an oversized purse.
To open the book is to get an insight into a counterculture that most of us don't even know exists. The matter of fact narrative by the boy tells us a story of coping with misfortune and homelessness. There is no preaching here, neither does the author/narrator offer a simplistic solution. There is hope here, however. The boy has watched a sparrow trapped inside the airport for days slip out of an open door at the right moment and "Fly away home." We and the boy hope he and his father, as well as the other homeless in this book, find their opportunity to do the same.
Things to Notice and Talk About
- The parallel between the sparrow and the boy's family is not difficult symbolism but some children may have to be helped to see it.
- The boy says "Not to be noticed is to look like nobody at all." Children should be helped to see what that statement means in all its implications.
- Rereading the book with an eye toward what the various people in this book value and how their values compare with those of the children in your class is a worthwhile activity. These people may be homeless but they are not valueless. Help the children see how they are coping with this difficult situation without hurting anybody. They have not turned to crime in order to get a place to live. The father goes off to a part time job. They are constantly looking for a way out: an apartment they can afford, better paying work. They are staying clean, washing up with full flights of people in the washrooms. The boy's father is insisting that, when it comes time, the boy will go to school even though he's not sure how he will manage it. There is compassion toward others in the book and real friendships between some of the homeless.
- With older children, a little research is in order here. Why aren't the boy and his father being helped? What about welfare? Surely they deserve it. Have the students find out about the eligibility for receiving welfare in your area and see if the boy and his father would qualify. Where would the checks be sent?
- Speaking of your area, what's available for the homeless in your area? What about homeless families? Who helps them? What alternatives do they have?
- The subject is too awful and too big to be used in a frivolous way. Let the children zero in on things they can do to bring attention to the homeless in their area and to help in very real ways. They can organize food drives, help at a soup kitchen, donate warm clothing, and write letters to newspapers, politicians and government officials. Real work and real awareness are in order here. The book is a powerful one but we should not let it leave children with unreasonable fears of losing their homes or with feeling hopeless about their ability to help.
Although the supply of picture books about homelessness is limited, there are several novels that deal with it and some are very good. We like:
- Mary Sachs' At the Sound of the Beep (Dutton, 1990 ISBN 0-525-44571-4) which is a good mystery as well as a book that depicts the homeless as real people in dire need.
- Lois Lowry's Taking Care of Terrific (Dell, 1984 ISBN 0- 395-34070-5) even though the "solution" is a little too easy.
- Paula Fox's Monkey Island (Orchard, 1991 ISBN 0-531-05962-6) in which, through a boy's temporary homelessness we see many who can't come in from the cold.
- It's Our World Too by Phillip Hoose is a collection of nonfiction short stories about kids making a difference.
Related Areas of Carol Hurst's Children's Literature Site
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