With that bright blue cover, bouncy font and beach-y theme, Sunny Side Up looks like a typical summer read. But looks can be deceiving. Sunny Side Up is a moving story about coming to terms with difficult secrets disguised as a typical summer read. So-called ‘typical’ elements include a summer spent away from home, steamy days spent by the pool, and adventures with a new friend. It is not surprising that tween-whisperer Jenni Holm makes the elements atypical– instead of camp or a cottage Sunny is sent to stay with her grandfather in a retirement community, the local pond has Big Al, a resident Alligator, and adventures include a cat-rescue business Sunny and her new friend Carl start up, a which provides a fantastic sequence of the two of them sniffing out a whole list of cats with great names. But half the book is comprised of Sunny’s flashbacks to the months leading up to summer, at home in Philadelphia, chronicling the decline of Sunny’s older brother, Dale.
You will know Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm from the wonderful Babymouse series. Nineteen books later, Babymouse still remains one of my favourite chapter book heroines, a sort of sassy cross between Ramona Quimby and Bianca from The Rescuers, but still her own mouse. Jennifer has also written a number of middle grade novels, three of which have been Newbery honour winners: The sublime Turtle in Paradise; Our Only May Amelia, and Penny From Heaven. And don’t forget about The Fourteenth Goldfish, which now lives in my permanent middle grade top ten.
A delicate balance is struck between Florida fun-times and the darker flashbacks. Sunny’s backstory unravels like a mystery, which adds a nice pace to the read. This is an astute and gentle treatment of children who are dealing with substance abuse in their families. In an author’s note, the Holms’ refer to their own experiences and explain that they wrote the book so children in this situation could learn not to be ashamed and that it’s important to talk about feelings. It also strikes me as a good way to introduce the topic of family struggle (with or without substance abuse) in general.
The Holms are trail-blazers in middle grade graphic novels, a genre which has been given a huge boost by the popularity of Raina Telgemeier’s books. Sunny Side Up will appeal to Telgemeier fans but at 216 pages it is a slimmer novel with less text. It is a nice step up for fans of Babymouse and chapter book readers in the 8-11 range, though older children will find much to love here as well. Learn more about the book and how it came to be by tuning into the brand new children’s literature podcast The Yarn, hosted by middle grade champions Colby Sharp and Travis Jonker, and available on iTunes.
Sunny Side Up is available now from Scholastic Canada.