The Same Stuff as Stars -- Katherine Paterson

Eleven-year-old Angel’s life has been topsy-turvy for almost as long as she can remember. Her younger brother, seven-year-old Bernie, has never known anything else. The past year was the first time their mother had stayed in the same place long enough for them to start and finish the school year in the same place.

Verna brings the kids on their weekly visit to see their father, who is serving time for holding up a Cumberland Farms, and on the way out, informs them that’ll be the last time they see him.  Then she drives them out to the country to visit their great-grandmother. The plan is to stay there for a week at most.

In the middle of the night, Verna takes off.

Angel takes up her usual role as caretaker, acting as mother to both her little brother and to her great-grandmother. She cashes the Social Security check, buys the groceries, cooks their meals, and tries to make sure that everyone gets something in the necessary Five Food Groups. The relationship she develops with the astronomer who lives in the trailer next door is almost the only thing she has to keep her sane.

I thought of the Tillerman family often as I read this book.  Angel is similar to Dicey – they have the same drive, the same ability to take charge, they both have far too much responsibility at too young an age.  Angel gives in to Bernie easier than Dicey did to the younger kids, though. Honestly, I wanted to slap Bernie a good amount of the time – while Angel deals with her situation by acting more and more like an adult, Bernie's method of coping was to act half his age.  He didn’t have the stoicism of the Tillermans – but then again, few adults have the stoicism of the Tillermans.

I felt for Dicey’s mother, though, whereas I felt that Angel and Bernie were better off without theirs.

Same Stuff as Stars is a gritty book – there is a mention of Verna’s drinking, though it doesn’t factor in to the story.  There is also a mention of track marks on their father’s arms.  There was a description of post-traumatic stress disorder due to Vietnam, and another vague mention of drugs due to the PTSD.  There’s a vague possibility of physical abuse, but it doesn’t happen onscreen.  There is a death and an escape from prison – again, neither onscreen.  More than any of the grit, though, the book is about family.  About what makes a family, about creating your own family, about how people don't have to be related by blood to be real family.

Depending on the maturity level of the kid, I’d recommend this one for fourth- or fifth-graders on up.  This book was pulled from an entire district of elementary schools because of the "adult situations" and swearing. Yes, there is some swearing, but there’s so little that I probably wouldn’t have even noticed it if I hadn’t been watching for it – there was a “damn”, a “dammit”, a “frigging” and a “bitch”.  There might have been a “hell”, too.  Kids probably hear more than that in one afternoon of television, let alone what they hear on the playground.  I’d be more concerned with the issues the book raises than the swearing – but the issues raised in the book are the reality for a whole lot of kids, and if someone other than me is going introduce my kids to them, Katherine Paterson is one of the few I’d trust to do it right.