Willow and Twig by Jean Little (2000)
Ten-year-old Willow looks out for her little brother, Cal. They call him Twig because he’s always attached to the end of her arm. Willow has responsibilities beyond her years and a determination that no-one will hurt her brother, no-one will make fun of him, and no-one will separate them. Without a confidant, she holds conversations with an imaginary red velvet mouse called Red Mouse, who gives her sage advice always. Willow has looked out for Twig since he was born. Willow and her mother, Angel, were staying with friends out in the woods when Twig was born and shortly after that, Angel took off. Thereafter, the two of them were shunted around from pillar to post with Angel showing up only occasionally and briefly.
Twig is a difficult child. He was born addicted to cocaine; at age two, the brother of one of the people they were staying with beat him about the head and damaged his hearing. Willow fumes privately whenever someone refers to him as a ‘brat’ or a ‘retard’ because she knows he just doesn’t hear most of what is said. When the story begins, they are staying with a retired hospital ward aide named Maisie in a one room apartment with no hot water and a shared bathroom down the hall. They try to avoid Rae who is the drug dealer who got Angel hooked and has an inordinate amount of interest in Willow. When Maisie collapses on the street and Rae steals the welfare cheque from her purse, Willow knows she has to get both her and Twig out of there. Where can they go? Willow has a distant memory of her grandmother but Angel told her that her gram never wanted to see them again. And once Twig throws a screaming tantrum, people don’t usually want them to stay.
Jean Little draws on her personal experience as a teacher of handicapped children at the Guelph Crippled Children’s Centre and her own life-long struggles with sight to create believable characters who are both winsome and courageous. She taps into real emotions and attitudes with a writing style that is riveting. Throughout the novel there are people who are racist, some who are inept and irresponsible, some who live with a silent fear, and some who put everything on the line to give two isolated children a home, a family, and a second chance. This book won the Mr. Christie’s Book Award in 2000. I stayed up way too late Saturday night because I couldn’t put it down.