In A Shelter in Our Car, Monica Gunning depicts the experiences of eight-year-old Zettie and her mother, who have come to the United States after Zettie’s father’s death. They are temporarily homeless, due to the struggle Zettie’s mother has been having to find reliable work. After they have spent some time in a shelter, which, Zettie comments, was noisy and crowded, Zettie’s mother decides that it’s better to use their car as a shelter.
The story begins with Zettie waking up in the car to sirens and flashing police lights. Zettie and her mother use the park’s rest room to wash up in cold water in the morning, and they search for food and try to stay away from the police. Zettie endures being bullied at school by children who call her “Junk Car Zettie,” and she thinks of her previous life in Jamaica with longing. Throughout the story, though, Zettie’s relationship with her mother anchors her. Her mother is kind and affectionate, and they are doing their best to get through this difficult experience with love and dignity.
In the end, Zettie’s mother has found work and is hopeful that they will be able to rent an apartment. Zettie thinks to herself, “[W]ith or without an apartment, I’ve got Mama and she’s got me.”
The story raises issues about homelessness, the nature of home, the difference between a shelter and a home, and whether love can shelter us from social injustice. Some questions to ask children when reading the story with them:
Why do Zettie and her mother live in their car?
Can a car be a home?
Do people need shelter? Why?
What are the most important things people need in life?
What does it mean to be homeless?
Why does Zettie want her mother to drop her off at the corner behind the school instead of in front of the school?
Why do some of Zettie’s classmates call her “Junk Car Zettie?”
Does Zettie feel safe? What do we need to feel safe?
Can love be a kind of shelter?
What would a perfect home look like? Do perfect homes exist?