The Way Home Looks Now by Wendy Shang – Review by Jeff Anderson
If you haven’t read Wendy Shang’s work, you’re in for a treat when you do. Her award-winning middle grade novel, The Great Wall of Lucy Wu, has delighted many readers with laughs. Two third-grade twin boys I know insist it’s the best book they’ve ever read. In her latest middle grade novel, The Way Home Looks Now (Scholastic, April 2015), Wendy takes on grief, depression, sexism, peer relationships, and the Dad dynamic with relatable grace. That said, I wouldn’t classify its depth as overwhelming. It is, however, a real book about real life. It has baseball (lots of baseball) and friends and siblings and culture. With her deft pen, Wendy Shang hits the ball out of the park on this book too.
To tell you the truth, I was expecting to laugh, and I did from time to time, but more often I was stunned by the simple truth on the page. Early in the book, Peter, the main character, encounters his depressed Mom, staring vacantly at the TV. She was in such a fog she didn’t even respond to his little sister, who was trying to get past a locked front door.
As I read, The Way Home Looks Now, I kept thinking of one of my favorite quotes by Kafka: “Books must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.” This book did that for me. I had a mother who suffered depression. And with not a hint of melodrama, Shang captures the still slowness and disconnectedness. And like Peter, I too searched to find a something I could do to magically fix Mom and make her happy or okay again. This aspect of the novel was most touching for me. Peter believes his involvement in baseball will bring Mom back to the world, back to talking and making dinner, back to being part of the family, finally up off the couch.
But don’t let me make you think this is only book about depression. It a book of daily life reflected–its tragedies, changes, and points of relief. Peter’s interactions with his peers at school, in the neighborhood, and at baseball practice and games give Peter plenty of other kid things to deal with. At every turn, Peter tries harder, all the while hoping he can make a change in his mother happen. But the real changes occur in Peter, in his relationship to his father and peers. Many issues are embedded and seeds for justice and fairness are sewn though out this honest book.
At some point, as much as I wanted it to happen, I was afraid that the story would end with Mom at his baseball game, in the stands, wearing a cap, waving a pennant, and cheering her son with a bullhorn. I won’t say how it ends, but Shang does anything but the expected, the pat. I love a book that has a real ending, where everything isn’t perfectly packed away and complete. This shows kids not everything has an immediate fix, and life does get better and does go on as imperfect and changed from what is was to what it is. That is the only completion there is. The only thing we know for sure is life changes the way home looks–now and forever.
Jeff Anderson is a writer and staff developer whose first middle grade book, Zack Delacruz: Me and My Big Mouth (Sterling) debuts in August. Find him on twitter (@writeguyjeff) or online at writeguy.net. He’s also written a few books for teachers, including Revision Decisions, 10 Things Every Writer Needs to Know, and Mechanically Inclined. When he’s not presenting to teachers or doing demo lessons in classrooms, he’s at home writing or reading or hanging out on the deck with his partner Terry and their four-legged children Carl and Paisley.