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Jennifer Longo fosters sense of home in YA novel ‘What I Carry’

By Sylvie Manz For The Spokesman-Review

Packing your suitcase isn’t about organization – it’s about simplification.

In Jennifer Longo’s “What I Carry,” Muiriel (yes, like John Muir, the naturalist) is an expert at packing. After 17 years and 20 placements, she is ready to leave the foster system, no strings attached. Her straightforward rules about packing and relationships are there to make sure she reaches 18 with a spotless record and doesn’t end up cooking meth while pregnant in jail.

But, of course, everything is turned upside down when she goes to her last placement, makes a friend and (insert sing-song voice here) meets a cute boy.

Longo’s writing is lyrical and witty with good old teenage sass. The story is set in the Puget Sound area, making reading it that much more fun for those of us who live in the Northwest.

In an author’s note, Longo says she wrote the book because her daughter, who was adopted from foster care, asked her to. Where other stories based on foster care or adoption tend to focus on troubled or evil children, or kids who are straight-up supernatural, this book is about a foster kid who is just trying to get by. Longo put a lot of work into learning what it is really like to be a foster kid, and it shows.

The story had me busting up laughing at times and groaning at others because people can be such gross jerks. From the start, it is hard to put down. Muiriel pulls you in with comical monologues on floss and how to stay under the radar in foster care, and she can talk about John Muir for days.

It dabbles in teenage drama while Muiriel finds she is breaking more and more of her longstanding rules. She makes a friend, a real friend; she likes a boy, a boy who loves nature as much as she does; she stands up to the terrible people at school; she gets a job she loves; and, worst of all, she starts to want to stay with Francine, her foster parent, and Terry Johnson, the dog.

A theme throughout the entire book is home: what makes a home, being taken from one’s home.

The theme extends to other characters in the book, including Muir’s friend, Kira, who’s great-grandparents were Japanese-Americans taken to internment camps during World War II.

“What I Carry” is the perfect thing to be reading right now – with May being both Foster Care Awareness Month and Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month – and it will make you feel right at home. It has woods, toast and tea, and is easy to connect with, even if you haven’t been in the foster system your entire life.

Sylvie Manz is a freshman at Lewis and Clark High School.

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