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Review of the Day: Minn and Jake’s Almost Terrible Summer by Janet Wong

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Minn and Jake’s Almost Terrible Summer
By Janet S. Wong
Illustrated by Genevieve Cote
Farrar Straus and Giroux
$15.00
ISBN: 978-0-374-34977-6
Ages 7-11
On shelves August 5th

Make the mistake of asking me and I’ll gladly talk your ear off about the state of current children’s literature and the sad deficeit of early chapter books published for 2nd-4th graders today. Encourage me further and I’ll wax eloquent on the plethora of series books for that age range coupled with the total and complete lack of anything else worthwhile in the meantime. I talk and I talk and I talk, but don’t listen to me too closely. For all that I lament the state of children’s publishing in this particular area, there are shiny little jewels of early chapter books lurking in many a publisher’s upcoming catalog, if only you’ve a quick enough eye to spot them. This summer author Janet S. Wong has written a companion novel to her previous early chapter verse title Minn and Jake. Understated, amusing, and with a delicate sense of how tween logic works, you won’t need to have read Wong’s previous novel to appreciate her keen sense of how kids operate emotionally when they have to suffer disappointment.


What a horrible idea. Jake thought he was so incredibly brilliant when he persuaded his parents not to send him to any camps or sign him up for any lessons this summer. Who could have predicted that summer without anything to do is so dull? Worse still, Jake’s been humiliated in front of perfect wonderful Haylee Hirata not once but TWICE in the past few days. In the midst of his misery he fails to properly write or talk to his best friend Minn, the tall lizard-loving tomboy who has a surprise up her sleeve. Guess who’s coming to town to visit? Minn and Jake’s friendship is sorely put to the test, however, when Jake’s frustration and Minn’s confusion lead to an almost (but not quite) terrible summer.


Ms. Wong has an ear for childhood friendships. The nice thing about Minn and Jake is that they’re at that age where boys and girls can still be best friends though there’s that impending threat of puberty on the horizon. As of this book Jake is only ten, but that doesn’t mean that the idea of boyfriends and girlfriends isn’t still bandied about. Wong gets kids. She gets them in the section entitled, “Boyfriend and Girlfriend” in which half the conversation is transcribed in unspoken words and phrases. As the book says, “When you talk with a good friend, / half the conversation is in parentheses / You know what your friend is thinking.” And the discussion about Jake’s heritage is well coupled with his angry retort to Minn’s question of why it hasn’t come up before; “Did you ever tell me that you’re white?”

Mind you, I’m not a particular fan of verse novels that are verse for the heck of it. Generally I like a book’s format to be justified in its text. For example, the remarkable Diamond Willow was written in verse because the diamond patterns of the text connected to the story as a whole. Minn and Jake’s Almost Terrible Summer, however, doesn’t really need to be in verse. I liked it, of course. I didn’t find the verse to be distracting or anything. But at the same time I couldn’t help but think that there wasn’t any reason in the world why the book had to be written this way. That said, Wong does have a way with words. I enjoyed the way in which her sentences ricochet the action. “Jake’s mother frowns at Halmoni / The frown bounces from Halmoni to Jake / Ouch!” Plus I appreciate the fact that Wong is one of the few authors who mentions the amount of time an average kid spends watching the “floaters” dance in front of their eyes.

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I could have been drawn to read this book for a lot of reasons, but maybe one of them had to do with the fact that I have a deep and abiding affection for illustrator Genevieve Cote. She’s one of those truly delightful artists able to mix just the right elements of silliness and loveliness. Her Missuk’s Snow Geese, for example, is sublime. Here Ms. Cote’s pictures appear at random, usually taking up a full page. They appear to be pen and ink with maybe an ink wash for shading (though I could be completely wrong). It’s hard to pinpoint what’s so nice about them. Maybe it’s the fact that they feel like they were illustrated in another country, but indulge in American ridiculousness in all the right ways. For example, when Soup performs well in the ice cream eating contest the accompanying image is of a gigantic ice cream cone and Soup’s head as the scoop, tongue out at the side. I was also particularly taken with the image of the airplane flying, its shadow revealed to be a lizard with stubby arms and legs outstretched. Most of Ms. Cote’s choices were pitch perfect, but I was a little thrown by her interpretation of what video games look like. The book doesn’t appear to be historical (a the reference to Halo 2 confirms as much), and yet when Jake starts daydreaming about the video game that’s gonna make him a millionaire it looks like a contemporary of Donkey Kong. Most odd.

To my mind the book has the feel of a friendship down pat. Being with someone else isn’t cutesy or even necessarily easy. Yet when all is said and done, Minn and Jake are real friends and I like to think that they’ll be able to maintain this closeness even through the murky waters of teenagerhood. For the kid that mopes around this summer complaining that there’s nothing to do, this is an ideal book to foist into their sweaty little palms. A truly enjoyable read filling a very real and undeniable need. Worth a gander at any rate.

Notes on the Publication Date:
  It seems a little cruel to the author to have a book where a child worries about wasting his entire summer and then to release it at the END of summer itself.  Bit of a pity, that.

Note on Names:
Jake’s little brother is named Soup.  This brings my count of children’s book characters named Soup to two (you can thank Robert Newton Peck for the first).

 Review of the Day: Minn and Jakes Almost Terrible Summer by Janet Wong

By the way, it’s Poetry Friday, peeps.  Check out The Well-Read Child for the round-up.

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Elizabeth Bird About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently New York Public Library's Youth Materials Collections Specialist. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of NYPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.

Comments

  1. Franki says:

    So glad to see that there is another Minn and Jake book coming soon:-) Thanks for sharing.

    I have worked almost all of my career with 3rd and 4th graders. For a long time, I was upset about the same issue–so many series books and not much else. But then I learned a lot about kids and reader at that age as I watched them every day and I realized that this is a great age for series. It is when many of us became hooked on a series. I think it is because in grades 2-4, kids are beginning to define their tastes as readers and to begin to learn about what they like as readers. Series books lets them do this. And it lets them experience of going back to characters you love. This seems to match their age, developmentally and emotionally well.
    So, now I still look for good chapter books but more importantly, I look for good series books that may hook readers and keep them engaged and lost in a character for a long time. Glad to see Minn and Jake are back –will they be a full series, do you know?

  2. Franki says:

    whoops–sorry for the typo/errors above. I was in a hurry and didn’t check until it posted!

  3. Fuse #8 says:

    I don’t know if they’ll be a full series, but I certain hope that’ll be the case. I have a weakness for tall girl protagonists, having known quite a few talls girls from my own youth.

  4. Matt says:

    Thanks for that comment, Franki – I never considered the concept of young readers defining their literature taste as driving the popularity of series books. I am so with Elizabeth on this point – I have such a hard time finding quality books for 3rd graders. I always feel like I am trying to hurry them up to be mature enough for the higher level fiction. “Here, set that Judy Moody aside and let’s hack our way through Inkheart…” (no offense to Judy)
    As a side note, (if I have the correct Janet) I met Janet Wong in Toronto and she is a DELIGHT!

  5. Fuse #8 says:

    If she was a delight then she was the correct Janet Wong. She spoke to the children’s librarians of NYPL this year and was fabulous. Which is probably the reason I wanted to read this book.

  6. Helen Frost says:

    Thanks so much for your kind words about Diamond Willow, but I hate to see it set up against Janet’s delightful work. The answer to why this book is written in poetic form is that Janet is a poet–that is her way with words.

    There’s so much exploration of the intersection of poetry and narrative these days; we’re all doing something a little different. I’ve thought that Diamond Willow might be thought of as a “novel-as-poem” rather than a “novel-in-poems”–that is, what makes it poetry is in the deep metaphor as it emerges and helps tell the story. It’s more visual, perhaps, than Janet’s work, which strikes me as closer to dance. Like Janet herself, as those who have met her attest, it has a vibrant energy, which fits perfectly with the form she uses.

    I hope to meet you someday, Elizabeth. Your reviews are always so careful and interesting. Thanks!