There's a strong sense of place in this ultimately warm, reassuring novel set in a poor, racially tense Baltimore neighborhood. Sam Webber doesn't like his new home, a smelly apartment light years away from the middle-class area where he spent his first 11 years. Since his father's disappearance, he's felt responsible for protecting his mother, but he's so sad and scared he can't even help himself: druggies and muggers patrol the streets; bullies hound him in school. His only friend is the school's black janitor, who turns out to need Sam as much as Sam needs him. Themes of racism, urban violence, depression, and family structure threaded through the story make the book effective for discussion as well as for independent reading.