Being hungry isn’t something a lot of kids have to imagine. Nearly 1 child out of 5 in the United States lives in a family that has trouble getting enough food. That means five kids in your homeroom might have gone to bed last night with a rumble in their stomachs.
Author Katherine Applegate has met some of those kids while visiting schools to talk about books. At one school — the Monarch School in San Diego, California — the issue of hunger was inescapable. The school was entirely for kids who are homeless.
“It was a pilot project that took off, and it’s miraculous for these kids,” Applegate said from her home in North Carolina. “There are showers, a free-clothes closet, counseling.”
And Monarch provides breakfast, lunch and snacks to its 450 students in kindergarten through 12th grade.
“Their resilience takes your breath away,” Applegate said.
Seeing those kids and others like them made the author want to write about homelessness. But Applegate also had another idea bouncing around.
“I had this large, hairy cat in my head,” she said.
The two came together in a new book called “Crenshaw.” It’s the story of Jackson, a fifth-grade boy whose parents struggle to pay the bills.
“I wanted Jackson’s family to be a working-poor family — a loving [married couple] trying as hard as they can as parents,” Applegate said.
Jackson, his sister and his parents live in an apartment. His dad had lost his job after becoming sick. His mom’s job teaching music had been eliminated. They work several part-time jobs, but there’s little money to cover the basics, including food.
“Back in the old days, when we always had food in the house, I would whine if we were out of my favorite stuff,” Jackson says. “But lately we’d been running out of everything, and I had a feeling my parents felt lousy about it.”
As the situation gets worse, Jackson finds a distraction: Crenshaw the cat.
Crenshaw isn’t a typical cat. He’s huge, he talks and only Jackson can see him. He’s an imaginary friend, and Jackson hadn’t seen him for several years. Crenshaw’s reappearance is disturbing.
“I am not an imaginary friend kind of guy,” Jackson insists. “At my age, it’s not good to have a reputation for being crazy.”
But Crenshaw won’t go away. The cat takes a bubble bath in the middle of the night. He insults the family dog. And he mysteriously urges Jackson to tell the truth, something the boy hasn’t been hearing from his parents during tense times at home.
“Sometimes I just wanted to be treated like a grown-up,” Jackson says. “I wanted to hear the truth, even if it wasn’t a happy truth.”
Applegate said that parents sometimes try to hide the truth about serious issues, thinking their kids won’t notice.
“When we have financial struggles, kids are so much more aware of things than we want them to be,” she said.
Honest conversations can help within a family and also within communities, Applegate said.
“Hunger and homelessness aren’t things we always want to talk about,” the author said.
She said she hopes that her book will spark action — including giving to the canned-food drive her publisher is sponsoring — and appreciation.
“I hope kids feel gratitude for what they do have,” she said.
Applegate also wanted to let kids know that having a friend like Crenshaw isn’t something to worry about.
“I think having imaginary friends is an amazing coping mechanism,” she said. “It’s pretty wonderful, and it makes a lot of sense to me.”