Do you ever feel like a plastic bag/ Drifting through the wind, wanting to start again? What a universal lyric, right? A Soft Place to Land by Janae Marks, a middle grade book about twelve-year-old Joy Taylor going through a tumultuous life transition, brings similar energy in the mysterious verse that intrigues Joy through much of the book: “I’m tired of smiling when actually I’m falling apart/ I’m tired of hiding the pain that’s inside my heart.”
Most of the story moves with Joy drifting like an untethered plastic bag. With her family having to downsize from a nice house in the suburbs with plenty of space that kept her family of four from bumping into each other, Joy is dismayed by the cramped apartment lifestyle her family is forced to adapt to after her father loses his job. Emphasizing the issues in being stuck in a smaller space together, her parents are locked into constant bickering that she can only drown out with her headphones on the top bunk the small room she now shares with her younger sister, Malia. Just when her frustrations with this arrangement reach the point where the earbuds and bit of comfort she can provide to Malia feels more draining than helpful, she makes friends with a longtime resident of the building and new schoolmate, Nora. Nora picks up on Joy’s need for privacy and shows her the secret hangout passed down from building kid to building kid over time.
Finding a new friend group in the kids that sometimes hangout together in the Hideout, Joy finds the confidence to get to know more of the community and make some cash by walking many of the building’s dogs in an enterprise of her and Nora’s making. Both girls have money goals to achieve—Nora needs a camcorder for her directorial projects and Joy wants to resume her cancelled music lessons—and enjoy spending time with the dogs and each other. But when Joy centers finding the mysterious author of the above poem as her major priority, these other interests seem to fall to the side. To add insult to injury, she may have committed the worst betrayal of all after hearing some devastating news from her parents.
As an older sister whose parents went through similar circumstances at an early age, many of Joy’s struggles hit home. Being the strong one and taking a hit—losing the ability to take music lessons or get a keyboard so that other family members can have something instead—feels like a necessary sacrifice to show love. Doing so without too much complaint because you don’t want to add stress to anyone’s overtasked life is also a familiar feeling. Luckily for Joy, a big mistake that she makes leads her parents to uncover and address her needs while also showing her how she can look for support even after she’s done her worst.
Needless to say, this book hit a lot a powerful notes for me and I would definitely recommend it to kids who are having a difficult time adjusting to a new life experience, whose parents are in conflict, or anyone who has enjoyed Kelly Yang’s Front Desk series.