I am about to describe to you a true situation that I have experienced time and time again as a children’s librarian. A parent will walk up to me and ask for a work of fiction for kids dealing either with money or business. Money or business. This request is usually met with a blank stare on my part followed by a furious search of the library’s catalog. Let’s see . . . money . . . money . . . Well there’s that graphic novel version of “Rich Dad, Poor Dad,” for kids, but that’s not really fiction. If you work in your own children’s room then you may know that nine times out of ten the answer to this kind of query will have to be, “The Toothpaste Millionaire” by Jean Merrill. I mean, face it. When was the last time any book for children dealt with finances in a format that was fun, readable, and contained halfway decent writing? Well, when I heard about “The Lemonade War” I thought my prayers had been answered. Then I read it and realized I’d been thinking about the title all wrong. I thought it would just be this lightweight bit of fluff with some business info for the kiddies on the side. Instead, the book delivers emotional punch after emotional punch. It resonates with the reader. Pulls you deep inside its story and doesn’t let go once. This is the first fictional children’s novel by author Jacqueline Davies. And you can bet that if she writes another, I’ll be first in line to buy.
Before the letter came, siblings Evan and Jessie got along just fine. She’s just a second grader and Evan’s going into the fourth, but they always helped one another out. Being exceptionally smart, Jessie would help Evan figure out stuff like how to make the ultimate lemonade stand. In return, her big brother would help her deal with some of the complexities of understanding kids her own age. Then came the letter and everything changed. Jessie’s going to skip a grade and be in Evan’s class next year and the boy is mortified. It’s bad enough having a little sister who makes you look dumb at home, since she’s a certified genius and all. Now imagine how much worse it would be at school where all your friends could see smart she was compared to how dumb you are. Now Evan’s rejected Jessie completely and she’s bewildered and hurt. She was hoping he’d help her make some friends in the coming year. When it’s clear that that’s not going to happen, though, betrayal turns to anger. Before they know it, the two kids are locked in a battle to determine who can sell the most lemonade by the end of the summer. Evan’s doing it to show that he can beat Jessie in something. Jessie’s doing it to win back Evan’s respect. And neither of them have any idea how out-of-hand the whole business is going to get for the next few days. Business tips and math problems chart the course of the competition.
I made the big big mistake of reading the beginning of J.L. Bell’s review of this book prior to reading it myself. My rule when reviewing a book is to never ever look at anyone else’s take on a book before writing my own. Keeps me honest. But look at Bell I did and lo and behold his first sentence stuck so squarely in my head that I’ve been turning it over in my mind ever since. He writes, “Jacqueline Davies’s The Lemonade War is, I thought, a surprisingly dark book.” That is all that I read of his review before remembering that I wasn’t suppose to indulge myself in this manner. Still, the damage had been done. I picked up the book to read and sure enough, Bell was right. Jacqueline Davies knows exactly how to pinpoint childhood rage and bewilderment and then drill it home for all it’s worth. It’s heartbreaking to identify with Jessie. She doesn’t idolize Evan, but he is undoubtedly her best friend. All her life he’s been the one to take her side. To help her understand things that no one else would explain. And suddenly she’s going to get a chance to do the thing that she’s always wanted most in the world; be in Evan’s class and get to hang out with him all the time. So how does he react? Not just with anger, but also with inexplicable (to her) cruelty. Time and time again the two kids come close to reconciliation, only to have Jessie’s social awkwardness make things worse instead of better.
The writing itself just kills you too. Evan goes from being Jessie’s sole confidant to a guy who’d rather hang out with some jerk like his old semi-pal Scott than her. Davies also knows how to make a scene look one way from one character’s point of view and then turn it around 180 degrees so that you see how different it was according to the other character. I loved the little details too. The random mother who, Evan can see, is the kind of nosy woman who “thought she was the mother of the whole wide world.” I was disappointed that there were contemporary mentions of things like Xboxes and iPods in the story, though. “The Lemonade War” is, I suspect, going to be one of those books that sticks in the public’s mind for quite some time and current technologies undercut that “classic” status I’m hoping it will achieve.
Regardless, I appreciated the honesty of this book. In the midst of all the business tips and money calculations, Davies’ real talent is in human relationships. You could throw away the premise of the lemonade war and still end up with characters interacting with a kind of honesty and realism that I’d bet a whole host of fellow authors would kill to have in their own books. There’s something about “The Lemonade War” that feels very real to me. Maybe it’s the conflicted ending or the fact that you know that there will probably be more problems to come in Evan and Jessie’s lives. At the root of the story, though, is this sibling bond that doesn’t drip of saccharine or ooey-gooey feelings. If you want a book that knows how to produce familial affection without ever feeling false, fawning, or sticky sweet, let “The Lemonade War” serve as your guide.
There is a certain breed of fiction where parents exist solely as a means of transportation or money. They’re peripheral figures that might dole out a smattering of advice now and then, but basically live on the fringes of the story’s central action. “How to Eat Fried Worms” by Thomas Rockwell definitely fits this definition. Ditto, “The Best Christmas Pagaent Ever”. And I dare say that “The Lemonade War” belongs to that group. It’s just as memorable as those books and the adults are just as useless.
My fear is that “The Lemonade War” might end up being written off as yet another gimmick book. It’s obviously more than just a teach-kids-business title, and I want people to recognize that fact. It’s gripping, moving, and fun. There are business tips spotted throughout, and they’re great, but that’s not why people are going to remember this book. Ms. Davies’ characters’ emotions hit home time after time. A surprise delight for anyone looking for a fun read (particularly in the summer).
Notes On the Cover: For a fun time, remove the cover from the book and check out Ben Franklin’s face on that one hundred dollar bill. One eye looks one way, the other eye looks another, and the result is the most deranged image of one of our country’s founding father’s I’ve ever seen. Wheeee! When I booktalk this title you can bet that I’ll be showing the kids this little trick every chance I get. I’m partial to the cover too. It’s memorable. Sticks in your brain. There aren’t any random female torsos or images of children lying on grass. It took me a while to realize that there’s a stream of lemonade being poured into the already full-to-brimming glass (I thought it was a straw) but it’s easy to ignore. Plus that lemonade looks gooooood. Not as good as the lemons on the cover of the new paperback edition of “Make Lemonade” (written by a fellow Jacqueline, no less) but still tasty.