Fly Away Home

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by Eve Bunting. Illustrated by Ronald Himler. Picture Book. 32 pages. Grades 1-5.
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Review

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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 yet Fly Away Home is free of all these 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 and 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.

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 people in this book, find their opportunity to do the same.

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Things to Talk About and Notice

  • What is important about having a home? In what ways does having a home help people? What is this small family missing by not having one?

  • 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.
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Activities

  • 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 people.

  • 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 alternatives do they have? Is there someone from a homeless shelter in your town who could talk with your class?

  • 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 overwhelming fears about losing their homes or with feeling hopeless about their ability to help.
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Related Books

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    Grades 1 - 5
    It Jes' Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw by Don Tate. Illustrated by R. Gregory Christie. Nonfiction Picture Book. 32 pages.
    Find this book: Local Bookstore, Amazon, B&N icon

    Taylor was 85 and homeless when he first discovered his love of drawing. Using scraps of paper and anything else he could find he drew powerful scenes from his years as a child in slavery and the years that followed. This title goes across many areas of the curriculum; occupations, art and artists, African American history, slavery, reconstruction, aging and biographies. An introduction and afterword expand on the information offered in the story.

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    Grades 3 - 9
    It's Our World Too: Young People Who Are Making a Difference: How They Do It--How You Can, Too! by Phillip Hoose. Nonfiction. 176 pages.
    Find this book: Local Bookstore, Amazon, B&N icon

    So much of the news of young people in our society is sad that it was fun to read It's Our World Too. I thought by the cover that these were all young adults but the chapter that moved me most was about a class of first and second graders in Sweden who bought a rain forest. The writing is personal, emotional and so skillful that the young people cited here seem real and not too good to be true. Their projects were/are worthwhile, possible to emulate, and inspiring. This is a book to hand to students and teachers who are reading about the environment, the homeless, the handicapped and the disenfranchised and are feeling overwhelmed and hopeless about any and all of these problems. Read More.

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