Middle schooler Joe Oak has a list of things he wishes he didn’t have to know. For example, he knows how much his grandmum makes cleaning houses during the day and office buildings at night; he knows exactly how much money is loaded onto his family’s SNAP card each month; he knows what items he and his grandmum can use SNAP to purchase at the grocery store and, more importantly, he knows what items the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program won’t pay for. Things like...
“… soap, shampoo,
toothpaste and toilet paper
— anything you need to get and stay clean.”
Joe is good at math, finding comfort in the consistency of numbers. Indeed, Joe’s gift for calculations is at least part of the reason why he knows when the prices of items they need begin to rise. However, no matter how hard Joe tries to make sure they can afford everything they put into the grocery cart, sometimes those numbers just don’t add up.
the humiliation of a grocery store clerk
telling you your total, and you don’t have enough,
so you have to choose what food to put back
— all while everyone waiting in line watches.”
Both Joe and his grandmother are experts at trying to stretch what little they have into just enough for them to survive. Although they rarely make it to the end of the month without a trip to the local soup kitchen, they have each other, which makes things like constant hunger, home insecurity and Joe’s mother’s abandonment a bit more bearable. However, if there’s one thing Joe knows better than anyone, it’s that...
“Every story boils down to
are all about the moments when
Joe’s mother, who has never been reliable, blows back into town.
“The Mess With Mom” leaves Joe and his grandmum unhoused and living in their car.
Joe’s friend, Nick, tells him about a trailer for rent in same the mobile home park Nick calls home. And while the trailer is so rusted and lopsided Joe nicknames it “the overripe banana,” the park is managed by Uncle Frankie, who spends his days bartering and trading for resources to help the people who live on his property.
Joe is suddenly left to fend for himself, without his beloved grandmum or the confidence to tell anyone that he needs help. Just when it seems things can’t get any worse…
And-then, BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!
While Joe’s story is often dominated by the devastating effects of poverty, in the end, Lisa Fipps's sophomore novel-in-verse is a book about love and the kinds of storms that can only be weathered together. It’s only with the help of his “super hero” teacher, Ms. Swan, who works to make sure kids dealing with food, home or other resource insecurities can find the support they need without being “outed” as poor, that Joe is able to access additional food and clothing that grandmum just isn’t able to provide. It’s only with the help of the creative and generous Uncle Frankie, who finds a way for Joe and his grandmother to accept help while also maintaining their dignity, that they are able to begin the work of starting over. And it’s only with the help of his two best friends, Nick and Hakeem, who are constantly looking for ways to support their friend without ever taking away Joe’s ability to choose what happens to him, that Joe is able to finally use his own voice to ask for help.
“When you’re so used to doing everything for yourself,
you forget that others will help.
if you let them."
On a personal note, as someone whose own childhood was remarkably similar to Joe’s, the thing I loved most about And Then, Boom! was the thread of community running throughout. Poverty is not heroic. It's not romantic. And for every person who manages to break that cycle, there are countless others who don’t. What’s more, there’s no shortage of (perhaps well meaning, perhaps not) people who, having never experienced poverty themselves, feel empowered to offer advice to those trying to break free from its choke-hold. In my experience, however, the narrative of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” falls apart when you don’t actually have boots. Working hard, doing the “right things” are just part of the equation. The other part is community. Not only do Fipps’s descriptions of crushing poverty ring true, (raise your hand if your family ate “bad beef stew,” too!) but her choice to craft this as a story about the strength of community sends a message that makes this book a must read for kids and adults alike.
"I didn’t change my path, but I changed who joined me on it, and that changed everything.”
Publication: May 4, 2024
Audience: grades 5+
CW: home insecurity, food insecurity, starvation, poverty, death of a grandparent, parental abandonment, foster care, natural disaster