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Children’s Novel ‘Shelter’ is a Day in the Life of an Unhoused SF 5th-Grader

Written by Rachel ZarrowPublished Dec. 24, 2021 • 12:00pm
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Christie Matheson was coaching her daughter’s soccer team in the spring of 2018 at Franklin Square when a few of the players mentioned that they were uncomfortable. Though the space offers beautiful views of the hilly neighborhoods to its west, Matheson’s daughter and her teammates expressed fear whenever they played there. When Matheson pressed the third- and fourth-graders to explain their discomfort, a few of them said that they were scared of the people living in the tents ringing the park.

Sensing a teachable moment, Matheson—the author of several children’s books, including Plant the Tiny Seed and The Hidden Rainbow—asked her daughter and her teammates if they were scared of all people experiencing homelessness. What if it were an unhouse family? What about a child?

After her daughter clarified that she would not be scared of unhoused children, Matheson realized that she had the foundation for a novel. The result is Shelter, Matheson’s first middle-grade novel about a child experiencing homelessness in San Francisco.

Shelter, which was published by Random House Children’s Books in October, is the story of a fifth-grader named Maya whose family is unhoused. Maya’s mother had to leave her last job as an art teacher in order to care for Maya’s young sister who has chronic food allergies. Maya’s father, a freelance writer, is out of work and in the hospital after being hit by a car while riding his bicycle through the city. To make matters worse, the family’s landlord has just opted to sell the tiny 1906 earthquake cottage the family has called home for years. Maya, her mother and her sister are forced to move into one of the city’s homeless shelters, counting themselves lucky that they were able to get a bedroom with a door.

Christie Matheson holds her book, 'Shelter.' | Photo by Camille Cohen

The novel is told over the course of one rainy San Francisco day, a craft decision Matheson made in order to show young readers how long 24 hours can feel like for someone experiencing homelessness. Over the course of the book, Maya must endure the cold without adequate clothing, confront an impending rainstorm without a proper coat or umbrella and negotiate San Francisco’s labyrinthine network of buses without her mother or father to repel unwelcome strangers.

Matheson explains that she wrote the book from Maya’s perspective as a way for young readers to “experience the day along with her.”

The voice of the novel’s narrator is approachable but wise, like that of a slightly older sibling. After Maya’s French teacher loans her an umbrella, she thinks, “It probably didn’t seem like a big deal to her to lend me the umbrella. But it’s going to make a huge difference in my day. Small acts of kindness can do that.”

Shelter is about “thinking harder about the things we take for granted,” Matheson says. It’s about “remembering that regardless of what someone is going through, most people have things going on beneath the surface, things we can’t see.” Matheson herself has never experienced homelessness, nor does she claim to have such lived experience. Before deciding to fully commit to the novel, Matheson says she thought hard about whether she was the right person to tell Maya’s story.

“I ultimately decided that a story about empathy, kindness, and understanding that many people are going through invisible hard things was important to share,” Matheson says, “especially given that kids in my community were thinking about it. I tried to research as much as I could, and write as sensitively as possible.”

In conducting research for the novel, she read up on children and families struggling to keep up with jobs and school while simultaneously meeting with social workers and figuring out where to lay their heads at night. Her resources included the National Center on Family Homelessness, the National Center for Homeless Education and the San Francisco Homeless Point-in-Time Count Report. She and her family also volunteered at Raphael House, Compass Family Services and the food pantry at the Richmond Neighborhood Center.

Matheson illuminates the wealth divide and inequality in San Francisco through choice details: Maya’s classmates casually banter about “ski week,” they come to school in expensive rain boots they only wear a few times a year and their parents throw them lavish birthday parties involving escape rooms, blow dry salons and celebrity chefs. On the morning Shelter begins, on the other hand, Maya deliberately forgoes breakfast so that her mother will have something to eat.

In one particularly heart wrenching scene, Maya leaves art class with some clay on her sweatshirt. The class bully notices: “Well, at least it goes with all the other stains on her jumper. So gross. Hasn’t her family ever heard of, like, a washing machine?”

In writing this novel, Matheson wanted to make it clear that homelessness does not and should not define Maya, nor anyone else. Just as she did her best to sensitively and truthfully portray the experiences of people experiencing homelessness, Matheson also wanted to accurately capture the experience of being a fifth-grader. Throughout Shelter, readers are reminded of the simple pleasures of that age, like using a potter’s wheel for the first time in art class or having pizza and a sleepover with your best friend over the weekend. 

Matheson also captures the push-pull of living in San Francisco—a city that is as vibrant, exciting and beautiful as it is tough on those who are down on their luck. She conjures the moody landscape of the fog obscuring Maya’s view of the Golden Gate Bridge and the simultaneous wind chill that accompanies it; and, Maya’s delight in finding another copy of her favorite book in a little free library after a bully has destroyed her copy, which she couldn’t afford to replace.

Matheson knows that the publication of Shelter isn’t going to solve San Francisco’s epidemic of homelessness, and she recommends that those interested in helping take their good intentions beyond the reading nook and onto the streets by volunteering with organizations that serve individuals and families in need. Still, through imagining and sharing Maya’s story, Matheson hopes to spread empathy for our unhoused neighbors and raise awareness around issues of homelessness and food insecurity.

'Shelter' by Christie Matheson is available through Penguin Random House.

Questions, comments or concerns about this article may be sent to [email protected]

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