‘15-year-old Tyler’s teenage angst turns to outright rebellion when his family leave London for a new life in Yorkshire. He’s angry with his parents about the upheaval and furious at losing his home. With only the dog to confide in, Tyler has no idea that a chance meeting with a skinny girl called Spider will lead him into a world he never even knew existed. Spider is sofa surfing and Tyler finds himself spinning a tangled web of lies in his efforts to help her escape her world of fear and insecurity.
Sofa Surfer shows how empathy and action can help those without a home to go to. As with his widely praised debut Me Mam. Me Dad. Me., Malcolm Duffy finds humour and heart even in dire situations. Relevant, warm and rewarding Sofa Surfer is about what happens when going home isn’t an option.’
Today is my stop on the Sofa Surfer blog tour and I have a review of this brilliant new release that looks at what it means to be young and homeless in today’s world and challenges dangerous assumptions of blame and the perception that to be homeless is to have done something wrong – or, worse, to deserve it. It’s recommended for children aged 12+ and, in my opinion, would make an excellent class reader for Year 8 and/or 9, and could be tied into wider PSHE studies and any work that schools do with homeless charities in terms of raising awareness and fundraising.
Sofa Surfer is written from the point of fifteen year old Tyler, who finds himself uprooted from London and unwillingly made to start over in Yorkshire, where he grows increasingly despondent and reliant on his memories of London to comfort him in his changed world. For Tyler, the move is the worst possible thing that could have happened to him, as it has removed him from his friends and all that he finds familiar, and at the beginning of the novel he is almost entirely fixated on how bad a place the world is for him, his behaviour towards Spider and his lack of understanding of why she cannot pay him the full amount for her swimming lessons (he does not think to enquire as to what her life is like, only loses his temper on one particular occasion) something that makes him appear selfish and preoccupied with his own comfort and needs, which is something that I think we can all find ourselves guilty of when it comes to not always getting what we want. However, Tyler is young and has had very little reason to consider much beyond his own bubble, belonging to a family of decent means, with an income that ensures he has never gone hungry or truly lacked for anything he needs. He might be short on things he wants, but his relationship with Spider soon begins to educate him as to the difference between necessity and that which he would like to have, and while has limited options with which to help her, his efforts seem far more mature than those of any of the adults in the story.
For me, one of the key features of the narrative is the perception of homelessness that is all too often bandied about. In this case, Tyler’s parents are initially unwilling to understand Spider’s situation, and upon learning that their son has seen someone who is homeless, his father declares it to be ‘self-inflicted’. Their attitudes do change over the course of the narrative, and his mum makes some attempts to be helpful in a way that makes her feel that she has tried, but their reaction when they discover that Spider has been in their house is as if there’s been an infestation that needs cleaning out. Both of them fail to see Spider as human and, ultimately, as a child who needs help. They are very protective of their own son, yet they cannot see that Spider is a young person – someone else’s daughter – who needs help and support, which is unfortunately the case with many instances of homelessness. In a similar vein, the girl who targets Tyler to be her new boyfriend, Michele, immediately decides that Spider is only seeking attention when evidence of her mental health issues surfaces, dismissive and judgemental in her efforts to keep him to herself and focused on her. The relationship between Tyler and Michele also serves to highlight other issues, such as manipulation in relationships, pressure to engage in sexual activity, and minors posting and sharing unsuitable material online.
When he leans the extent of the problems that have led to Spider becoming homeless (I don’t want to elaborate further and spoil the story!), Tyler’s immediate response is empathy and a desire to help her in what ways he can. In this, he learns that his own ‘suffering’ is not truly something that is the end of the world for him: it’s upsetting, yes, but he still has everything that he needs to lead what is, for him, a ‘normal’ life. His understanding of her situation is furthered by a firsthand experience of it, in which he learns that to live on the streets is, amongst other awful things, to fear for your life. At this stage, he is already completely committed to supporting Spider, but I feel that the moral for the reader is that it shouldn’t take an experience of life on the streets for anyone to empathise with another human being. Tyler’s experience is used to highlight the realities of homelessness to young readers and is a very effective feature of the story that will hopefully open the eyes of those who are unfamiliar with the struggles of young and old alike on the streets. One of the most positive things about the story is that Tyler’s parents do learn that their attitudes are not as they should be; that their perception of their being ‘understanding’ is more limited than they would like to think, and that sometimes what we see as helping is not all that we could truly do.
I highly recommend Sofa Surfer as an engaging read for teens and one that teachers should look to for potential to include in their English curriculum as a unit for KS3. Thank you, Zephyr Books, for the copy of Sofa Surfer and the chance to take part in the blog tour!