A Small Free Kiss in the Dark

Skip, an eleven-year-old runaway, becomes friends with Billy, a homeless man, and together they flee a war-torn Australian city with six-year-old Max and camp out at a seaside amusement park, where they are joined by Tia, a fifteen-year-old ballerina, and her baby.

One thought on “A Small Free Kiss in the Dark

  1. Pritchard & Wilson says:

    Gail’s Take
    I chose this week’s selection for three reasons: 1. It is both an IBBY and USBBY Honour Book, 2. I found the cover intriguing, and 3. It reminded me of some previously read. The first two reasons go hand-in-hand. I knew I wanted to read more books from these two lists and for me, my initial interest is typically generated by the cover. At first blush, the cover suggests Millard’s novel is a horror story, after all, there is a theme park backdrop with a skull in the entrance way, and a marquee with THRILLS blazoned across it and given the title, I imagined a teen love horror story—I almost rejected it. Then I read the end pages and I was reminded of The Tomorrow series by Marsden and The Last Survivors series by Susan Beth Pfeffer, so I decided to give it a go.
    It is a horror story, but not like I first imagined. Rather, it is the story of an “almost twelve” boy, an exceptional artist, who has survived a disenfranchised home life, a brutal foster home, and life on the streets, only to wake up early one morning when the dumpster he is sleeping in is violently thrown across the alley and discovers war has broken out. What little comfort Skip has found for himself on the streets is abruptly and irrevocably gone.
    Skip and his sometimes friend, Billy, an older homeless man, take refuge in the library where they meet six year-old Max who is patiently waiting for his mother who has not returned to fetch him. As conditions in the library deteriorate, they decide to head for Dreamland, a theme park that Max has a picture of in his after-school journal and where Billy has been before—several times. Once there, they meet Tia, a gifted ballerina who “was something like [Skip] on the inside except she had her dancing and [he] had [his] pictures,” and Tia’s infant daughter—Sixpence (p.96). There, the rest of the story unfolds.
    I’m still a bit on the fence with whether or not I like this particular novel, but there are things about it that intrigue me. For example, one of the complexities in Skip’s homeless world involves where to sleep. He is too young for the men’s shelter and because he is alone, he cannot sleep in the women and children’s shelter—an all too common situation for homeless youth (National Coalition for the Homeless, 2008). I began thinking about kids like Skip—What are the causes for homelessness among youth? What are the consequences for them? and What help is available for them? Obviously, these kinds of questions naturally led into inquiry and some fact-finding about kids like Skip.
    Skip falls into the definition of homeless youth, or “unaccompanied” youth, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH). He is “under the age of eighteen” and he lacks for “parental, foster, or institutional care” (http://www.nationalhomeless.org/factsheets/youth.pdf). Skip is in that “five to seven percent of American youths [who] become homeless in a given year” (National Alliance to End Homelessness, 2007). According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, “disruptive family conditions are the principal reason that young people leave home” (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1995). Skip’s background is dropped on the reader bit by bit and we learn that his childhood has been “disruptive;” his foster care placement fares no better. For example, Skip has a list of reasons for why he has no friends:
    Dear Mr. Kavanagh, Skip can’t have a friend because he’s moved to seven schools in three years and there’s no time for him to really get to know anyone.
    Dear Mr. Kavanagh, Skip can’t have a friend in case he accidentally tells them something he’s not supposed to.
    Dear Mr. Kavanagh, Skip can’t have a friend in case they ask him about the bruises… (p. 4).
    Another aspect I found interesting is how Millard uses Billy’s music, Tia’s ballet, and Skip’s artwork as juxtaposition between hope and war, beauty and destruction. Millard describes, in exquisite detail, the wedding birds Skip draws outside a church, the chalk drawings in the railway tunnel, the paper cranes he makes for Max, Billy’s harmonica playing, and Tia’s dancing—“This girl danced like light on water” (p. 101).
    A third piece that piqued my interest was the idea of power and the powerless that played out on several levels. There were the obvious victims of the war or as Skip describes them, the third side, “All the people who don’t believe in war. Dad says there’s more on the third side than the other two sides put together, but the ones on the third side don’t have weapons” (p. 43). There are the guys Skip and Billy ran into who “were setting plastic chairs on fire and hurling them across the road like fireballs;” when Skip asked why the they had to make things worse, Billy replies, “It’s the war…. Makes heroes of some, fools of others” (p. 106). And then there are those who are simply bullies, like the gang Skip runs into while on a supply foray. They drag him through a broken glass window, strip him of his clothes, rip out pages of his Monet book and burn the rest—simply because they can.
    A Small Free Kiss in the Dark is not a feel-good book, but there are good things about it. The ending is not “happy,” but there is hope; hope where a heart can dance like a red kite (p. 177).

    This is an extraordinary book, a dystopian young adult novel that manages to bring the reader to a dream like space where it is the end of the world as we know it and the kids are alright (to mix my rock song metaphorical titles). Glenda Millard is an Australian author who is well known in her home country with this novel being her first published in the United States.
    Reminiscent of another Australian text, Woolvs in the Sitee (2006), written by Margaret Wild and illustrated by Anne Spudvilas, Small Free Kiss trusts the implied child reader to make sense of an apocalyptic world where the boundaries of adulthood and childhood have been erased and where the child has to ultimately end up saving herself/himself. The typical kidlit journey trope of home/away/home that has for so long been a tacit theory of the way children’s stories work is not at work in this text. Instead, the postmodern condition of childhood is illustrated by the journey of the child protagonist, Skip, setting out on a journey from an abusive foster home to find a home that he creates.
    Along the way Skip creates a family as well. This is the meaning he finds in his lives, what helps him to overcome the existential struggle and angst set up outside himself by the powers that be who decide for no apparent reason to destroy his world. I am excited by this portrayal of child-as-competent-agent, pushing against the sentimental and revisionist mythology of idyllic and innocent childhood. Ms. Millard does not spare the reader (child or adult). She presents life without judgment or hypocrisy. The 15-year-old mother, Tia, may be too young to be a mother but I believe she is ultimately the hero of a story that is unsparing, lyrical, tough, and beyond beautiful.

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