“Once, when I lived with my dad, some boys asked me to play with them at school. They were playing war and asked me whose side I wanted to go on: the Americans or the Enemy. I said I wanted to go on the other side.
‘Whaddya mean?’ they asked. ‘There’s only two sides: the Americans or the Enemy.’
‘My dad says there’s three sides.’
“Who’s on 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.'”
Skip is an abused 12-year-old, a runaway trying to escape the beatings at his foster home. He’s an artist, too, creating chalk drawings that make other people stop and gape in astonishment. He dreams of having a place to plant a garden, with a lily pond like Monet used to look at. But his biggest wish is for a family, some stability, something to hold on to. He’s got Billy, an arthritic homeless man who looks after him. They share food and stories and try to find a shelter that will let them stay together. But Skip’s never sure if he will wake up and Billy will be gone, just like his own father disappeared long ago.
When war breaks out, Billy and Skip try to shelter in the public library. Under a table, clinging to a notebook, they find Max, a terrified six-year-old. He heard someone talking about “weapons of max destruction” and thought they were coming to get him. He can’t find his mother, either, and won’t leave the library: she promised she would come back for him.
Eventually, the three make the way out of the worst part of the war-torn region, and take shelter in an abandoned amusement park three hours away. They try to get by on things they get from stores, but they also don’t want to hoard things, because Billy says it’s important not to be selfish, and to only take what they need. Soon they’re joined by Tia, a teenage ballerina with a tiny baby. Together, they try to create an escape plan; Max remembers a house in the country where his grandfather used to live, and if they can make it there, they’ll all be safe.
The best part of this story is Skip’s voice. He’s sensitive, perceptive, and describes his world with the eye of an artist. The setting, an abandoned amusement park, and the interesting characters make this book a little treasure. At once, it’s a story about war, family, and human resilience.
This isn’t the author’s website, but it’s her thoughts on writing the book:
Millard, Glenda. A Small Free Kiss in the Dark. New York: Holiday House, 2009. 180 pp. Grades 6-9.