Sam wants a family. In fact, he’s made a list of things that his perfect parents should have including a BMW MS, holidays to Disneyland, and a garage wall with a basketball hoop. Together with his best friend Leah, he comes up with The Perfect Parent Project. After years of moving from one foster family to another, there has to be a perfect solution out there somewhere. What he doesn’t realise, is that sometimes what you’ve got is pretty perfect itself.
Foster has long been a master of getting inside a child’s head, and seeing how the same circumstances can look from different points of view. Here, he cleverly creates a protagonist in Sam who is misunderstood, and completely simpatico. As Sam proceeds with his project, Foster shows the different ways in which children can react to rejection, and how they internalise emotions and feelings of insecurity, at the same time, showing how easy it is for other people to wrongly read their intentions.
The authenticity of his young characters and the way they assess their surroundings is spot on, and Foster builds anticipation and intrigue as Sam builds trenches of lies around himself, digging himself deeper and deeper, until the reader is bursting to know how he’s going to clamber out.
One way, of course, is with the well-crafted community of adults around him. Foster shows it really does take a village to raise a child, and illuminates the understanding of teachers, foster parents and Sam’s social worker. The adults are careful and caring and demonstrate their reliability in a world that is often unstable and impermanent.
The other feature is how the book beautifully cultivates Sam and Leah’s friendship, depicting how it needs work, loyalty, and sometimes forgiveness, but then reaps huge rewards. Sam’s relationship with his foster parents’ young son, Reilly, is also pitched perfectly – it is a rollercoaster of a relationship, but always worthwhile and fundamental. There is also a fascinating scene when Reilly’s grandparents come to visit, and all the dynamics that entails.
Readers will be most delighted though with the touches of humour throughout, which lighten the story and also create pathos; and Sam’s adventures in his school drama club, his gaming with Reilly, and his time with new friend Josh are all fun and incredibly touching.
Foster’s cleverness is in writing the opacity of being a child – how difficult and yet how simple life is at the same time, distilling life’s complexities to their essence.
This is a terrific novel for building empathy. Reading it will not only give recognition and self-awareness to those in a similar situation to the protagonist, but should help give other children an insight into their peers and how outward appearances do not always display what’s going on inside. This is delicately done, and exquisitely pitched for the age group.
The only fault is that it feels a little too long. It’s inevitable for the reader to see what Sam isn’t seeing early on, and it takes a while for the conclusion to come. When it does, it doesn’t carry the neat ending one might have thought, leaving a little looseness and uncertainty, which is, of course, true to life itself, and crucial in building resilience and showing that we need to be grateful for what we have. Sam knows that having a house isn’t the same as having a home. And Foster knows that having a story isn’t the same as putting it down well. Luckily for us, he’s managed both.