The novel begins with Buddy and the other boys in the orphanage being visted by families who might choose to take them in. Buddy is selected, and has to comfort one of his friends at the orphanage, Jerry, who isn't. Buddy packs his few belongings in his suitcase and in particular a flyer for a music group that is very important to Buddy. Then, the experience of Buddy in this family is explored as he is bullied mercilessly by Todd Amos, the son of the parents. Buddy is not believed when he tries to protest and is eventually locked up for trying to stand up for himself. He manages to get out of the room and decides to run away. He then has a series of reminiscences about his mother, and in particular what she insisted on calling him:
A bud is a flower-to-be. A flower-in-waiting. Waiting for just the right warmth and care to open up. It's a little fist of love waiting to unfold and be seen by the world. And that's you.
This quote not only explains the title of the novel and why Bud is so insistent on being called Bud and not Buddy, but it also introduces the theme of bildungsroman as Bud develops and grows and finds his place in society through the adventures that he has. Lastly, Bud wakes up and rushes to the nearby Mission, only to find that they are not accepting any more people for free food. He is amazed when a family take him in and pretend that he is their son so he can get breakfast, and even more amazed when they give him some free sugar as he continues on his journeys.