New Books: The Exact Location of Home

The Exact Location of Home
by Kate Messner
(Middle grades)

Zig’s a tinkerer, so when he lucks into a box of miscellaneous electronics at a garage sale, he’s intrigued by the GPS unit inside. As he’s checking out geocaching locations, he notices one poster with a name that could be his dad’s—and he wonders if it could be his dad’s way of contacting him, leaving him clues in the geocache. It’s a bright spot in an increasingly difficult time: His fun-loving but perpetually busy dad has been MIA for years, his mom’s waitress job is barely covering the grocery bill, and their nice landlady has been replaced by her son, who says they’ve got to pay their back rent or he’s going to evict them. Zig never thought he’d be sleeping in the car and sneaking in a shower at school or that a family shelter would start to feel like home, but that’s what happens when they can’t come up with the rent payment. 

Too ashamed to tell his friends (including Gianna, whom you may know from The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z—and if you don't, you should) what’s happening with his life, Zig can’t understand why his mom refuses to ask his dad for help—Zig knows if he knew what was happening, his dad would be there in a second to rescue them. He starts searching for geocache clues more and more, trying to figure out where his dad really is and what he might be trying to tell Zig. 

Homelessness is one of those Issues that used to pop up in my Scholastic book order form (along with Teen Pregnancy, Child Abuse, and Drugs), and it would be very easy for this book to veer into After-School Special territory. It doesn’t though, thanks in large part to Zig, who manages to be a normal, slightly geeky kid who just happens to become homeless. There’s no drama about it, just a slow, inevitable process of not being able to catch up the bills—his mom picks up every shift she can, but waitresses don’t make a lot of money, and she’s still trying to finish nursing school. Zig never falls into the stereotypical role of Homeless Boy; he’s just Zig, who happens to be homeless right now. This book manages to walk the fine line of being an actual story about an interesting person and addressing an important social issue.

Readers will suspect long before Zig that there’s a lot of wish-fulfillment going on in his geocaching search for his absent father, but the clues are fun to follow and his adventure’s resolution has surprising sweetness. It’s also interesting to see the role school plays in Zig’s new life: School is a place where he can safely take a shower, get free lunch, and get support from a kind librarian who notices when a kid is missing school supplies, but it’s also a place where people might tease him for being poor and where clueless teachers talk about helping “the less fortunate” while some of those less fortunate are squirming in the desks in front of them.

Zig sees the world as one big circuit, and his engineer’s brain wishes life could be as simple as fixing a broken toaster: Once you find the problem and repair it, the circuit completes and it starts working again. Having to figure out how things can work even when parts are missing or broken is part of Zig’s journey.