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Review of the Day: Ways to Make Sunshine by Renée Watson

Ways to Make Sunshine
By Renée Watson
Illustrated by Nina Mata
Bloomsbury Children’s Books
$16.99
ISBN: 978-1-5476-0056-4
Ages 6-10
On shelves April 28th

I am the Lou Grant of children’s literary reviewers. I hate spunk. That’s kind of a blanket statement for what often turns out to be a fairly nuanced issue, so I’ll scale it back a bit. I hate unearned spunk. Children’s books are just rife with the stuff, overflowing with cheery aphorisms and chipper jolts of self-esteem. Spunk, as far as I can tell, is nine times out of ten just a more upbeat form of didacticism, often considered preferable to boring browbeating fare. But there are exceptions to every rule and for every nine intolerable doyennes of drivel there’s a tenth book where the character is more than a one-note cheerleader. Renée Watson is one of those authors I read and I read and I read, and then wait on. I like her books. I enjoyed Some Places More Than Others. Her picture book Harlem’s Little Blackbird remains memorable to this day. But the book of hers that I think I can unequivocally say I like the most now is Ways to Make Sunshine. With a title like that, one fears that the book will be doomed to find itself lumped in with innocuously cheery, forgettable fare. We get peppy little novels for younger readers all the time. They run together in your mind like rivulets down a windowpane. Thank goodness for this book then. Sharp and smart. Kind and caustic. Occasionally acidic, but in a nice way, it’s the kind of book that wakes up dreamy readers and forces the darned kids to think a little. Precisely what we would have all been waiting for, had we but known to want it.

Ice cream before dinner is not something to celebrate. Indeed, it’s an obvious ploy on the part of Ryan’s parents, and she doesn’t trust it. Nor should she, because the next thing she knows she and her family have moved out of their beloved home into a much smaller rental. Add in an annoying older brother, talent show anxiety, church anxiety, and what exactly is going on with Grand Floral Parade getting cancelled on account of rain? Ryan tries to be a good kid, but sometimes it’s tricky to be yourself and someone who knows what the right thing to do is in any situation. Fortunately, the name Ryan means “king” and she aims to live up to it, one way or another.

So the big marketing takeaway with this book is that it’s sort of a Ramona reaction title. The Ramona Quimby books by Beverly Cleary are all set in Portland, Oregon (and, indeed, you can visit statues of them there if you’ve a notion). They are also pretty dang white. Renée Watson, who is black, grew up in Portland and decided to give us a different version of the town with her own lovingly flawed little female personage. Like Ramona, this book skews younger than some middle grade fare. You’d probably be more inclined to read it or hand it to kids between the ages of 6-10 rather than 9-12. Unlike Ramona, race is mentioned periodically. Lake Oswego is “too far and too white” (true). Ryan’s friends are mixed race or black. Ryan’s hair is this complicated staging ground that says a lot more than some kids are going to pick up on. Ryan is no Ramona, but that’s only because she has a personality entirely of her own. She’s mean to her brother and imaginative and horribly disappointed in her family’s fallen fortunes and often quite sweet. She’s a complicated personality. The kind of person you wish you saw more of in books for kids of this age.

I particularly liked that the book didn’t always swerve in the direction you expected it to go. For example, in the chapter “What Easter Means to Me” Ryan is going to have to get in front of a mic in church and give a speech that she has memorized. From the set-up, you figure you know what to expect. She’s messed up in the past but she’ll get up there scared, screw up her speech, and then give one even better that’s from the heart. Typical. Only, of course, that’s not the way it plays out. Instead, she drops the mic, forgets everything, never gets to justify her hard work (at least not in that moment), and gets out of there quick as a wink. Extra points for including the sentence, “I wonder why Jesus’s love for us has to be celebrated by torturing children to memorize poems.” The chapter “Water” is one of those moments in childhood where you go to a sleepover where you only know the host, and that’s a familiar set-up. What happens in the pool, however, has never been done in a book for kids before. And then there’s Ryan’s relationship with her brother, which is spiky, and angry, and malicious, and tender all at once. She’s the kind of kid who will prank her brother for being mean, then be sent to her room where she laughs herself to sleep. All this and not a brat. No mean feat.

We all have our gifts. Watson’s are multitude but the ones that interest me the most are geographical. I read a Renée Watson book and I know where I am. Granted, I have the privilege of having lived in two of the places that Watson knows well (Portland, Oregon and Harlem, New York), which means I assess with a gimlet eye the accuracy of these locations’ portrayals. Take the previously mentioned Some Places More Than Others. One section of that book involved the main character walking the streets of Harlem, assessing the landscape, tallying the landmarks, and making her way back to home base. Every single step of that journey felt accurate. New York City is the kind of place where out-of-towners fudge the details, but Watson keeps things realistic. Now I haven’t lived in Portland for an awful long time, so when it came to the neighborhoods portrayed in this book I can’t give you a yea or nay on their veracity. What I can tell instead is that the devil is in the details and the details of this book are devilishly clever. I’d forgotten that the place I always took cans to be recycled was the Safeway, and I got my food at the Fred Meyer grocery chain. Or that town’s obsession with all things berry. Or the wonderful wonderful outdoor art market on Saturdays. When I read a Ramona book I take it on blind faith that I’m in Portland. When I read this book, I’m there.

Now I started this whole review saying I don’t care for “spunk” and I stand by that statement. To be honest, though, spunk comes in different flavors. Renée Watson took it upon herself to include a jolt of it in her first chapter, but she also makes Ryan this realistic kid with a temper and a spine, so that when she spouts lines like “Maybe he doesn’t realize I can do and be anything” it goes down sweet, not sour. An author that can write a book for younger kids that mixed together those tricky elements of humor, raw reality, hope, and fear is someone you watch with interest. Above all, Watson’s a writer that respects the child audience. She’s keeps her readers awake and alert, making sure her heroine is interesting from page to page. Recently I’ve been looking at old reviews of books I read more than a decade ago and so many of them I’ve forgotten. But this book? I’m never gonna forget Ryan. She’s the friend you don’t always get along with. The one who’s never dull. The one that always has something going on in that head of hers, even when she’s dead silent. The one your kids are going to return to again and again. And so will you.

On shelves April 28th.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

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About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. 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 EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.