The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The story of one New York girl and the precarious lives of the poor

As I read this book I kept picturing a momentous round of Jenga, a game that progresses move by move to the collapse of a tower of wooden blocks. In the case of Andrea Elliott’s “Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival & Hope in an American City,” you start with something meaningful but shaky — say, a mom and dad with eight kids holding it together in one room of a Brooklyn homeless shelter. Then you watch pieces get subtracted and wait to see how long it takes for the tower to fall.

Elliott, a New York Times reporter, began modestly, in 2012, with a plan to write a story about conditions inside the Auburn shelter for homeless parents, mostly mothers, and their more than 400 children. The project widened in ambition and narrowed in focus to one girl, an 11-year-old named Dasani. As Elliott spoke with Dasani’s mother, Chanel, outside the shelter one day, she found the centerpiece of her investigation. “Again and again,” Elliott recalls, “Dasani steals my attention — doing cartwheels and backbends, reenacting her latest battle with Auburn’s incorrigible mice.”

After she published her multipart series in the Times in 2013, Elliott wanted to keep reporting. The result is “Invisible Child,” which recounts the eight years Elliott followed Dasani and her extremely at-risk family. Elliott remembered the portrait of two boys living in the Chicago projects in Alex Kotlowitz’s “There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America” (1992). Her time frame following Dasani is much longer than the span of Kotlowitz’s book, which was a little over two years. In many ways the most comparable work is Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s landmark “Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx” (2003), which followed two young women over nearly 10 years.

As you might expect, Chanel’s is a story of unremitting struggle — to keep everyone fed, to keep them in school, to keep the family together and to manage her own addictions. Elliott, a superlative investigative reporter, is in constant touch not only with the family but also with a large number of those they’re in touch with, from teachers to friends to welfare workers. She also offers rich historical and social context. One in five children in the United States today lives in poverty, she writes, the same proportion as 20 years ago. In the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn, where the shelter is located and where Dasani initially attends school, “the top 5 percent of residents earn 76 times the income of the bottom quintile, making this one of the most unequal pockets in the city.”

Race matters, too: “It is a less-known fact that Brooklyn was built on the backs of slaves, brought here by the Dutch in 1626 to clear land, build roads, and work the tobacco plantations. When the British took the colony nearly four decades later, renaming it for the Duke of York, the importation of slaves began in earnest. The colony’s enslaved population swelled to 13,500, making it the largest slaveholding territory in the North. And nowhere in New York was the concentration of slaves higher than in Brooklyn — one-third of the population.”

There are many characters, many incidents and many short paragraphs. What concentrates the story and makes it most gripping is when, about halfway through, Dasani applies to a boarding school for poor children. The idea comes from her school principal, Paula Holmes, who knows that the well-endowed institution, established by the Hershey chocolate founder, has changed the lives of many students from struggling families. Miss Holmes, as she is known, has recommended students for admission there but never gotten one in. Dasani has been an uneven student but is athletic and “already on the public radar,” Elliott writes. Holmes also nominates Dasani’s closest sister, Avianna. As it happens, Dasani gets in, Avianna doesn’t, and the narrative shifts abruptly to Hershey, Pa., where Dasani struggles. She misses her family terribly, and they miss her.

Elliott makes vivid Dasani’s dilemma. She has become “parentified” by her parents’ neediness — her mother relies especially heavily on her to help with the other children, to the point where Dasani misses many days of school because she is needed at home. The upside of this is that the children appear to be close and loving. The downside is that her departure is like an earthquake, with a cascade of disastrous consequences. Five days after Dasani leaves, the youngest child, 7-year-old Papa, runs away. This in turn triggers a fateful child-welfare investigation.

Elliott acknowledges that this project has made her “less of a traditional reporter and more of an ‘immersionist’ ” who spends long stretches of time with her subjects. The transformation brings various challenges, such as balancing her empathy and the human tendency to advocate for her subjects with the professional imperatives of fairness and honesty: For the sake of her readers, Elliott must strive to present a warts-and-all portrait of vulnerable people. To my eye she succeeds.

Where she doesn’t so much go is to the question of the difference that her own presence and actions have made to the story. Dasani’s admission to the Hershey school is at first glance a plus, a concrete benefit of the family’s brush with New York’s powerful newspaper of record. But when the shaky tower of family life then collapses a little over a year later, we wonder, would they still be together if Dasani hadn’t left? Dasani seems to think so: “When I was in the house, did the kids get taken away? No. . . . When I left the house, this is what happened. This is why I did not want to come to this dumb school.” Fast-forward to Dasani, four months after being expelled from Hershey, posting a photo on Facebook of three new friends “throwing gang signs” with the brash caption, “forever family.” The title of LeBlanc’s book, “Random Family,” now looks fitting here, as well.

Bringing the struggles of the poor to the public eye is one of journalism’s highest callings, and “Invisible Child” takes its place alongside “There Are No Children Here” and “Random Family.” Elliott’s vivid account renders her subjects as whole people — even the prickly, embattled father figure, Supreme. We feel Chanel’s visceral pain when she declares, while in the process of losing her children, “Myself is the kids . . . I have no self.” The particular gains power when set in context: 22,000 New York children, Elliott writes, were in city homeless shelters in 2012, up from 6,700 in 1990. At one point even one of Dasani’s teachers becomes homeless.

Elliott maps Chanel’s family tree, an illuminating exercise. In World War II, Dasani’s great-grandfather was a buffalo soldier, a term that Native Americans used in the 19th century to describe Black troops, and one that stuck. This memory was lost to the family over the years. When Dasani’s great-grandfather moved to Brooklyn from the South after the war, he couldn’t find employment in his specialty as a skilled mechanic — the profession was overwhelmingly White — and couldn’t benefit from the job training or mortgage aid offered to mostly White veterans by the GI Bill. Dasani’s great-grandmother attended the same public school that Dasani and her siblings do. Her grandmother was born in the building that became Dasani’s decrepit family shelter. The family’s downward mobility appears to exemplify structural racism: People like them are stuck. “Invisible Child” makes this truth terribly, uncomfortably plain.

Invisible Child

Poverty, Survival & Hope in an American City

By Andrea Elliott

Random House. 602 pp. $30