Where I Belong
Author: Mary Downing Hahn
Publisher: Clarion Books
Publication Date: September 2014
Lexile Level: 640
Mary Downing Hahn was a favorite in my childhood, and I’m glad to see that she’s still publishing. Where I Belong is a slight deviation from her usual fare—at least of the works that I’m familiar with. Many of her stories are ghost stories or have an otherwise gothic feel. My favorite when I was young was Wait til Helen Comes (which I should really revisit at some point).
Where I Belong is about rising seventh-grader Brendan, a foster child who is struggling with finding his place in the world. He’s an artist, a self-professed dreamer, who is failing sixth-grade. He has no friends, is at odds with his foster mother, the world is against him, yada yada yada. Okay, so the way Brendan is set up is relatively believable (I have issues with the portrayal of his foster mother, but we’ll get to that). I’m not sure if kids would still be so cruel towards a kid because of something like his long hair in this day and time, but I do remember the jeers against the band Hanson was that they “looked like girls” back in the 90s, so maybe it’s still a thing. Kids can be cruel for any number of reasons. We never really see the bullies in Brendan’s school though, except for a mention at the beginning at the book.
It seems like a lot of the problems against Brendan and his state in the world is due to the fact that he’s a foster child. I talked about this a bit in my review of One for the Murphys, so I won’t take too much time on it here. But this is one of those negative portrayals of foster kids and the system that I dislike. Granted, this isn’t a major point in the story, and is tastefully done. While I’m not sure why a baby abandoned at birth wouldn’t have had a better shot at adoption (since infants are the big demand), Hahn does lay out his past, and I don’t have a huge problem with it. I can buy that this situation could exist, and yes, it would be pretty damaging to a kid’s self esteem. But the idea that a kid is “bad” just because they’re a foster kid? Does anyone actually think that? Maybe I’m naive, or sheltered, or just think better of the world in general…but Brendan mentions at one point that he heard an adult say that foster kids had “bad blood.” That’s just stupid, and in my mind, lazy writing. Again, I could be wrong, and this could be a thing. But I’ve never seen it, and I like to think most people would be better than to blame a child for their circumstances.
Related to this is Brendan’s foster mother, Mrs. Clancy. The first half of the book show her as being distant and not particularly interested in Brendan. Granted, most of her perceptions that we see are actually Brendan’s interpretation—things he thinks she thinks—so she very well may not be as cold as she’s painted. And to Hahn’s credit, she addresses this later in the book—Mrs. Clancy talks about how she’s raised so many foster kids, and she just doesn’t have the energy that she used to. Truthfully, this is a minor issue, but it still bugs me (see “negative portrayal of foster parents” as mentioned before).
Okay, so the actual story. Brendan is a big reader, and is particularly obsessed with the legend of the Green Man—a mythical figure who is the protector of the forest. He goes into the woods, finding a tree where he decides to build a tree house. He is very respectful of the spirit of the forest, and often feels he’s being watched. He meets an old man, who seems to possibly be the Green Man itself. This, combined with the meeting of a girl who shares his interests, helps set Brendan on a more positive course.
There are a handful of mentions that set this story in modern times (such as cell phones and Facebook) but overall, the story is pretty timeless. One of the strengths is the descriptions—Hahn sets us up early on that this is not a particularly wealthy area of town. It makes a lot of what happens later on more believable. For all my ranting, I did genuinely like this story. I’m a sucker for anything fey or Puck related, and the Green Man falls in that category. The twist, while predicable, was still well done, and I’ll confess, I teared up at the end.
Final verdict: a good recommendation for kids who like realistic fiction. Maybe not an essential addition to most collections, but a solid choice. However, I doubt kids will be quick to pick this one up on their own—it might take some marketing.