Invisible Child Summary

Invisible Child is a 2021 work of nonfiction by Pulitzer Prize–winning investigative journalist Andrea Elliott.

  • Elliott’s book follows eight years in the life of Dasani Coates, a young Black American girl initially living in a homeless shelter with her family in Brooklyn, New York.
  • Dasani cares for her younger siblings and struggles in school due to her responsibilities. Eventually she earns a scholarship to Hershey, a boarding school.
  • After being dismissed from Hershey, Dasani is placed in foster care and becomes involved with a gang. She later moves back in with her mother, Chanel.


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Last Updated on March 28, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 801

As an investigative reporter for the New York Times , author Andrea Elliott wanted to give a voice to the often unheard stories of childhood poverty. After looking for months to find a child who could clearly articulate the personal experience of growing up poor, Elliott discovered Dasani and her...

(The entire section contains 801 words.)

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As an investigative reporter for the New York Times, author Andrea Elliott wanted to give a voice to the often unheard stories of childhood poverty. After looking for months to find a child who could clearly articulate the personal experience of growing up poor, Elliott discovered Dasani and her mother, Chanel.

Elliott integrated herself into the fabric of the family’s life for nearly a decade, observing and recording their daily lives. The Times also provided cameras so that the family could create video diaries, and Elliott collected thousands of records to fully investigate the complexities of Dasani’s story.

Elliott’s original work resulted in a five-part series that ran in the New York Times in December 2013; readers were captivated by Dasani and her story, and Elliott realized that there was much more work to be done. She continued to shadow the family’s life, and the compilation of that work became Invisible Child.

The work focuses on Dasani Coates, who is eleven when the book opens. As the oldest child in her family, she is intuitive to her siblings’ needs and devoted to taking care of them. She wakes first in their homeless shelter each morning to scrub the floors and prepare for the day. It is Dasani who awakens to her baby sister’s cries and journeys to the cafeteria to heat her bottle before anyone else wakes up. Dasani is also tasked with ensuring that her younger siblings arrive at their various schools on time, though this means that she is often late for her own first class. She makes no excuses and offers no explanation for her tardiness; this is simply her understood role as part of their family.

The historical struggles of Dasani’s parents and ancestors are also detailed in the book. Elliott traces Dasani’s heritage on her maternal side back to her great-great-great-great-grandfather, who was enslaved in the early 1800s. Dasani’s great-grandfather, June, was a celebrated war hero in Europe for his brave efforts during World War II; however, when he returned home, he struggled to feed his children, who often stole food to survive. Ramel, Dasani’s biological father, abandoned her when she was a toddler, and her stepfather, Supreme, sometimes draws clear lines between his own biological children and his stepdaughters. Chanel, Dasani’s mother, is a complex parenting model. On one hand, she is Dasani’s loyal advocate and encourager, urging her to achieve a life that Chanel and the rest of the Sykes family have never been able to accomplish. Yet she also struggles with ongoing drug addictions and goes years without employment, often stealing merchandise from stores and reselling it on the streets for cash. In the chaos of their lives, she relies on Dasani to mother the younger children, robbing her daughter of any semblance of childhood.

It is Dasani’s loyalty to her mother and the guilt she carries for leaving her siblings behind which compels her to be dismissed from Hershey, a boarding school in Pennsylvania. Recommended to attend Hershey by a former principal who recognized her talent, Dasani complains that conforming to the expectations of this school violates her sense of authenticity and complains that the school is trying to force her to act “white.” Fueled by guilt and anger that her absence from her siblings’ lives directly contributed to the demise of the family when she left, Dasani begins attacking other students at Hershey and is ultimately dismissed from the school.

When she returns to New York City, Dasani is placed into foster care since Chanel and Supreme have temporarily lost custody of their children. Feeling that she must prove her strength, she regularly engages in fights on the streets and then becomes associated with a gang. Only when her life is in imminent danger does Dasani reconsider the life she is choosing.

Invisible Child chronicles the ongoing struggles of homelessness, which passes from one generation to the next in Dasani’s family. It painstakingly examines various branches of government “assistance” programs which fail to provide any long-term solutions and asks readers to consider whether disrupting this family—and others like it—provides any true benefit. After entering foster care, Dasani’s brothers are particularly affected by the loss of their parents. Dasani’s youngest brother, Papa, is institutionalized for an extended time after making suicidal comments; her stepbrother Khaliq becomes involved in gang-related activities and eventually commits murder. Chanel believes all of this could have been avoided if she had been allowed to keep her children.

The book closes with Dasani’s family gathering to celebrate the impending birth of a new baby. This new life expands their family once more but is also a reminder that the plight of homeless and poor children continues after Dasani’s childhood concludes.

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