Written by Marilyn Sachs
Illustrated by Susan Tang
Published: 1990

He lay curled up on the stone bench in the Shakespeare Garden. Even though the early morning fog touched them all with cold, clammy fingers, he was the only one who didn’t shiver and snuggle deeper into a sweater or jacket. He was barefoot too, and wore only a pair of jeans and a short-sleeved shirt.

“Look at his hair,” said the young policewoman sadly. “It’s so pale. It’s almost white.”

The photographer moved around to the other side of the bench and snapped another picture.

“I don’t like it,” said the policeman. “I don’t like it at all.”

“Poor boy,” the policewoman said. “I wonder who he was.”

This book introduced me to the homeless.

Growing up a white girl in a middle class American suburb, “the homeless” were a grey conglomerate that existed only on the shadowy edges of society but never “around here.” They were a feature of “big cities” or other poorer nations or relics from other time periods. I don’t even remember seeing a homeless person growing up, or at least not recognizing their plight if I did see them. And while At the Sound of the Beep doesn’t cover the issue in nuance or provide its characters with a great deal of depth, it was enough to really shock my middle school brain. And even while rereading it, I remembered a lot of the fascinated horror at seeing people reduced to such a state often through no real fault of their own. It features abuse (domestic and drug-related), mental illness, poverty, and plain bad luck.

The main characters, twins named Mathilda and Mathew Green, are much like I was. Middle class, white, oblivious to all but the usual concerns of kids their age. Mathilda is assertive, athletic, and bold while Mathew is more introspective, creative, and shy. But their well-ordered world comes crashing down when their parents announce that they are getting a divorce and the twins will be split up. After trying and failing to convince their parents they want to stay together, Mathilda and Mathew decide to run away to their estranged Uncle’s house and live there until their parents see reason.

But their plan goes awry. Uncle Ben isn’t home. The twins resort to living in the nearby park, sleeping under leaf piles in a gazebo, watching their emergency money slowly dwindle away as they try to feed themselves, and come to meet the various inhabitants of the park. Some are harmless or benign, some are sad or sympathetic, and some are frightening. As time passes, Mathilda gets more and more concerned as her brother Mathew begins to adapt to and even enjoy life in the park. But someone is killing the homeless… and if they aren’t careful, the twins might be next.

At the Sound of the Beep is not exactly what I would call an enjoyable read. It’s interesting and you like and sympathize with the characters. Unlike in Baby-Sitters Little Sister, this divorce is not amicable, nor is it an easy transition for the kids involved. I can understand their motivations and how legitimately scary it is to be out on your own with no where to go. It’s eye-opening because it shows a world that exists right under our noses, in our parks, on our very streets… that we simply ignore. It’s an uncomfortable book because it makes you think about the kids and battered women and mentally ill and workmen down on their luck forced to find shelter and grub for food however they can. Which means more people should read books like At the Sound of the Beep… and hopefully be motivated to help.

To that end, here are some charity organizations that include the homeless in their mission to alleviate suffering:

Foundation Beyond Belief

National Alliance to End Homelessness

National Coalition for the Homeless

UNICEF


Find nonprofits and charities near you: https://greatnonprofits.org/