Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Book Review: Junonia by Kevin Henkes (2011)

Alice Rice is turning ten, and she will spend this year's birthday in the usual way - by taking a Winter vacation to Sanibel, Florida, with her parents. She looks forward to this yearly trip, and depends on Sanibel, Scallop (the cottage), and her family's many Florida friends to remain unchanged from year to year.  This year, though, a snowstorm keeps Helen from joining the group, and the Wishmeiers' teenage grandchildren have other commitments that require their presence at home. Even Mr. Benton is different - he seems older, and is much less tactful than he used to be. The worst insult of all, however, is that Aunt Kate, Alice's mother's college best friend brings her new boyfriend, Ted and his six-year-old daughter, Mallory on the trip along with her. Mallory's mother has recently left the family and gone to France, and because this has caused Mallory to act out, the focus of Alice's birthday celebration keeps shifting from the birthday girl to the younger, troubled child instead. On top of that, Alice is also disappointed that she cannot find a rare junonia shell, a feat she has dreamed of accomplishing for years.

I really love the way Kevin Henkes writes. In both his picture books and his novels, the words come together so effortlessly, and create such simple, yet vivid images of normal, everyday life. Alice's story isn't filled with action and movement - it's very introspective, in fact, even in the third person, and most of the major events of the story are shifts in emotion and attitude rather than external occurrences. My personal experience reading this book was enjoyable, and I was continually impressed by the subtleties of the story, and the imagery and turns of phrase Henkes uses to portray the setting, the characters, and Alice's many conflicting feelings about her birthday, change, growing up, and moving on.

I am less sure how children will react to this book, though. I fear that in a world where the most popular books are funny (Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Dork Diaries), action-packed (The 39 Clues and Percy Jackson) and/or fantastical (Harry Potter and The Ranger's Apprentice), a serious, deep, and more "literary" book will go unnoticed. Realistic fiction isn't a popular genre in my library, outside of the book group that recently read The Penderwicks, and the die-hard fans of Fudge and Ramona, and I suspect that it's not at the top of the list at a lot of other places either. But that's not to say a child wouldn't enjoy this book. Henkes understands childhood disappointment in a way that really resonated with me, and I think Alice's perspective matches that of many real children whose lives are also changing as they move closer to adolescence.

I'll be really curious to see if the copy at my own library circulates well or not, and I'll be seeking out other reviews to see what other children's lit. readers think. The book is beautiful to look at - the cover is gorgeous, the pages are nice and thick and the artwork accompanying the story - beautiful sketches in blue ink - was done by Kevin Henkes as well, so it makes the perfect complement to the text.

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