If it’s Tuesday afternoon, it’s tea time in the park. And, mind you, that’s High Tea, served from the finest imaginary kettle and using the freshest, most savory, imaginary leaves.
Priscilla, an elderly homeless woman turned wanna-be princess, is the convenor. Her court is a ragtag assortment of elementary school-aged kids who run, walk and wheel their way to this after-school soiree. Not surprisingly, it’s the highlight of their week.
Racially, ethnically and economically diverse, the youthful gang includes curly-haired, spunky Magdalena, whose parents believe their daughter’s royal playmate is imaginary; brothers Tomas and Hugo, one tender-hearted and the other prone to bullying; Jillian, born with spina bifida, who has perfected the art of wheelchair dancing; and twins Jeff and Beth, who work hard to hide the fact that they live in a car with their single-parent dad.
Writer LaMarche — yes, this is the Pat LaMarche who was the vice-presidential candidate of the Green Party in 2004—says that Priscilla the Princess of the Park was written “for kids aged seven to 700.” It’s an impressive effort. Nineteen short, beautifully illustrated chapters introduce a bevy of themes, all meant to sensitize readers to the realities of U.S. homelessness and highlight the humanity of those who live in the streets, in parks, and in cars, storage facilities, and overcrowded dwellings.
Nonetheless, the story is somewhat sketchy. Princess Priscilla, for example, remains mysterious, an enigmatic soul whose backstory is never revealed. Although I found this frustrating, the fact that Priscilla the Princess of the Park is just the first installment of what will eventually be a four-part book series, means that the door is open for this and other unanswered questions to be resolved.
That said, parents, grandparents, guardians, teachers and community educators may want to supplement the volume with a discussion of what it means to live without shelter. Of course, this has to be done carefully to avoid scaring the bejesus out of kids and filling their hearts and minds with anxiety and fear. Still, if presented well, the book will increase awareness, empathy, and compassion toward the homeless.
What’s more, timing is everything.
Ironically, as Priscilla became available to readers in the late summer, COVID-inspired eviction and foreclosure moratoriums were beginning to expire in many regions of the country, a horror that is expected to lead to a groundswell of homeless individuals and families.
Here in New York City, kids often see homeless folks huddled in doorways and on subways and likely have concerns and questions about the who, why and how of their existence. Reading about Priscilla and her courtly subjects can be an effective way to jump-start a conversation about social justice, poverty, and housing policy. It’s then our job to help kids imagine — and grow up to build — a world without poverty, where everyone is treated with respect, no matter their financial status or life trajectory.
Priscilla the Princess of the Park
Written by Pat LaMarche
Illustrated by Bonnie Tweedy Shaw
Charles Bruce Foundation, 2020
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