Phoebe Stone is a master of contemporary voice. Despite a tragically misleading cover*, The Romeo and Juliet Code was (and remains) a favourite book of mine. She has done it again in the funny and cathartic The Boy on Cinnamon Street, the second of two MG books I’ve read recently dealing with grief.
Warning, this review contains spoilers!
Louise has quit the gymnastics team and given up her name for the more apt, outrageous Thumbelina. Unfortunately only her best friends Reni and Henderson are willing to call her by this new moniker. Her grandparents, who she lives with, are too busy calling her Louise and being in love to notice any changes. She is contemplating moving in with Reni and Henderson’s family when a pizza boy leaves a note and suddenly the whole world looks different.
I can’t say I’ve read a lot of books in which the narrator has repressed memories about a parent’s suicide. Even if I did, I doubt they would be as well-rounded, empathetic and hopeful as The Boy on Cinnamon Street. Louise (or Thumb, as Henderson calls her) is irrepressible, even in the states of denial, grief, and anger she experiences throughout the book. She is self-effacing but also totally hopeful, latching on to the idea of the pizza boy as her secret admirer so wholeheartedly that you can’ t help but cheer for her. Of course the pizza boy is not the one with a crush on her, but the reader is very aware of who Thumb’s true admirer is, and you root for him the whole time.
I admire how Phoebe Stone creates unlikable (or at the very least) unreliable parents, but not in a comedic, absurdist Roald Dahl way. These are adults who are ill-equipped to parent, and Stone explores the ramifications of this in her books. When we do learn about Thumb’s mother and her absentee father, you feel horrified and sad, but this is mitigated because her new family, consisting of her grandparents and The Elliots, are so wonderful. Just like in The Romeo and Juliet Code, when we realize Felicity’s parents have left her with distant family in order to pursue their careers as spies and are likely not coming back, instead of outrage and numb horror we are happy that she has found her new family.
Stone is also very good at creating a male friend/potential love interest for her heroines, Henderson in The Boy on Cinnamon Street and Derek in The Romeo and Juliet Code. Both Derek and Henderson are interesting, sensitive, and though the romance may not be fully realized in the book, the reader has the sense that it will be at some point. Which brings me to yet another thing I love about Stone’s work- the sense of that these characters will leave and breathe beyond the last page. As a reader, I love feeling like I have caught a glimpse of the characters and the author has created an open ending in which I can image all sorts of lives for them.
One of the things that separates straight-forward issue-driven fiction from just plain good fiction is a well-rounded experience. This isn’t a book solely about grief, it’s also about first crushes, friendship, family, bullying, giving up and starting over again, and body image. You may think, how on earth can all of that fit into one book, but even in a tragic or low point in life chances are there are other things going on. Life is never one plot line. Stone handles this incredibly well, probably because she is a middle-grade genius.
So many of her phrases stick with me but I especially liked how she dealt with body image and weight. Thumb meets Reni in fat camp, where Thumb is teaching gymnastics. Reni is worried about her weight and always trying to lose a few pounds, but it is clear that the Elliot family are all on the heavier side. When Reni wonders why boys love her big sister but not her, Thumb points out that perhaps it’s because “Annais acts pretty.” I loved the awareness and age-appropriateness of this line.
If the premise of this book doesn’ t make you weepy, than the author’s note definitely will. Like Louise, author Phoebe Stone lost a parent to suicide at a young age. She is careful to point out the differences in her experience and Louise’s story, but it is clear the story is personal.
The Boy on Cinnamon Street is available now in hardcover from Scholastic. I picked mine up at the charming and wonderful Curiosity House in Creemore, ON. If you can, make sure you drop in and ask for Jenn- one of the most passionate, charming, and generous booksellers I know! I mean how many bookstores offer free wishes? (see below)
*Upon further reflection, it appears Arthur Levine may be branding Stone’s books by using shoes on her covers. I’m not opposed to shoes on covers, in fact I rather like it. This cover is very effective. But when the shoes in question are coloured high-top Keds that are supposed to evoke WWII, I have some issues.