Coleen Murtagh Paratore is best known for her light-hearted middle grade series The Wedding Planner’s Daughter, The Funeral Director’s Son, Mack McGinn, and Sunny Holiday. The review journal I once edited, MultiCultural Review, praised the first Sunny Holiday book for its spunky African-American heroine whose humor and optimism bring joy to her hard-working mother while her father is in prison.
Although some of her protagonists, like Sunny, confront difficult circumstances, Paratore has revealed little of her own troubled childhood in Troy, New York. In Dreamsleeves, she ends this silence, and the result is a powerful and nuanced autobiographical novel that shows how a young teenager can find hope despite poverty, abuse, and failure.
Twelve-year-old Aislinn O’Neill lives in a cramped three-bedroom apartment with her parents and four siblings in Troy in 1970; her beloved grandmother lives downstairs. When her Nana leaves for the summer to help another ailing family member, everything falls apart. Aislinn’s father is an end-stage alcoholic—constantly sick, on the verge of losing his job, paranoid, abusive, and controlling. Her mother will not stand up to him, and now she’s pregnant with the family’s sixth child. While her mother works and her father drinks (while pretending to work), Aislinn has to take care of her five siblings—a handful for anyone but especially for a girl so young. One or another sibling is constantly getting into scrapes that involve blood or stomach pumps, and to make matters worse, Aislinn’s best friend is spending time with a wealthy girl who promises a summer of fun. When the boy of Aislinn’s dreams (and the name Aislinn itself means “dream” in old Irish) shows interest, Aislinn’s dad won’t let her speak to him.
When Aislinn begins to write down her wishes and put them on her sleeve, some of them start coming true. She realizes that you need other people to make your dreams come true, and in bravely ending her family’s isolation—a common feature of families suffering from alcoholism and abuse—she starts a movement in her church and community.
Aislinn is a powerful, inspiring character in large part because she is realistically imperfect—given responsibilities beyond her capabilities, jealous, and sneaky. Her father, too, appears with more complexity and humanity than substance-abusing parents generally do in children’s books. Aislinn remembers the good times, and readers see that her father is suffering and dying as a result of an addiction from which he cannot break free. Above all, this is a story about the importance of community in the lives of young people who face poverty and abuse. No matter our age, each of us has a role to play in making our own dreams and struggles known and reaching out to our neighbors so that no one dreams and struggles alone.