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Review of the Day: The Trouble with May Amelia by Jennifer L. Holm

The Trouble with May Amelia
By Jennifer L. Holm
Illustrated by Adam Gustavson
Atheneum (an imprint of Simon & Schuster)
ISBN: 978-1-4169-1373-3
Ages 9-12
On shelves now

Reviewing a Jennifer L. Holm book is a bit redundant. Telling anyone that the woman can write is like pointing out that the sky is blue. It’s self-evident. Using that logic, the only reason to ever write a review of a Holm title would be to do so when she writes a dud. Yet thus far Ms. Holm has remained fairly dud-resistant. There’s a level of quality to her writing that pleases consistently. In fact she’s so consistently good that I put off even reading her latest novel The Trouble with May Amelia for that very reason. If it’s great, why bother reading it? Yeah, it didn’t make a lot of sense to me either when I sat down and thought it through. Still, I hadn’t read Our Only May Amelia, this book’s predecessor, and I wasn’t sure that this sequel would make sense otherwise. To my infinite surprise, and none too small delight, what we have here is an honest-to-goodness stand alone novel. One that’s not afraid to make its adults wrong more often than they’re right.

Having seven nasty older brothers is tough enough if you’re a boy, but as the sole girl in her family it’s May Amelia who has to put up with them. Not that having a father who wishes you were a boy helps. In May Amelia’s Finn-descended family it’s her father who has the final word, so when a man comes to the area with plans to make everyone rich all the neighbors look to see what May Amelia’s Pappa does first. With May Amelia as his translator, her father determines that the deal is good, effectively cooking the goose of all his neighbors when the no goodnik takes off with all their dough. Now Amelia is bearing the brunt of the blame, her family is in tatters, and things could simply not get worse. That is, until she comes up with a beautiful notion that might be the saving of them all.

My husband has a theory that if you ever want to make a character sympathetic in a book or a movie, be they hero or villain, just make sure they have a disapproving parent. For some reason, there’s something inside the average human psyche that understands this deep seated need to prove yourself to your parents. Holm’s novels starring May Amelia may be the only ones I can think of where it is the father who acts disproportionately annoyed and disappointed in his own daughter. Of course it’s taken to a rather far extreme in this book, but I think the shock of that will do child readers a world of good. Sympathetic parents are a dime a dozen and ridiculously villainous ones in the Roald Dahl vein also abound. The realistically callous, not evil, parent who is not addicted to a substance of any kind and does not have any kind of a disease is so rare that I can count the few that come to mind on one hand.

Another way to make a character sympathetic is to make their life entirely unfair. Students of writing should just sit down and examine the first chapter of this book then. It sets up the time period, the personality of almost every important character, the setting, the tensions, and the problem that will ultimately be the ruin of them all. In short, it’s pretty much one of the most perfect little first chapters I ever did read. It does, however, contain certain phrases and sentences that use capital letters to make their points. I’m not sure why the use of capital letters in this book doesn’t bug me, but it doesn’t. By rights it should. It should feel precious or ridiculous. I think coupling it alongside the sheer nastiness of May Amelia’s life goes a long ways. Cuteness is cut in half when you’ve got the kind of father that makes fun of you when your brothers rub manure into your hair.

If one was feeling snarky you could say that Ms. Holm has written two books in a row where smooth talking con men bamboozle people and get away with it. Not that this book and Turtle in Paradise have all that much in common beyond that. Some authors find a tone to work with and just stick with that same tone for all their natural born days. Holm switches tones every other minute. The voice in this book is unlike any other you’ll encounter in your travels. Both put upon and spunky, May Amelia has a way of garnering the sympathy of all readers (even those who might be nasty older brothers themselves). If you’ve a temptation to read something that will make you indignant on behalf of the heroine, seek ye no further than this. A right ribald little novel sure to gain new fans and to appeal mightily to the May Amelias of the world.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

Notes on the Cover: Okay.  So we’ve all heard my standard rant on the pink bra-strapped jacket they slapped on this book (it would have been so incredibly easy to simply delete it on a computer, don’t you think?).  Never mind that the girl on the cover looks closer to eighteen than twelve.  And then there’s the fact that I discovered a rejected Egmont cover that used the same stock photo of the same girl (chicken and all) albeit with a hat.  We’ve been over all that before.  Here’s what I can’t figure.  Jenni Holm is a notorious award earner.  If she puts out a work of fiction these days you can pretty much guarantee that at some point a shiny sticker (usually of the silver variety) will be making its way there.  So why in heavens name would you short shrift her on a book jacket?  Never mind that she almost never gets the covers that she deserves (I carry the torch for a rejected Turtle in Paradise cover.  Why would you purposely give her a bad one if you knew it would potentially win a big award and be looked at closely?  Granted they left a big blue patch of nothingness on the jacket where an award would go, but that doesn’t excuse that which is to the left of said blue sky.  Thank goodness the author is good enough to earn some readers anyway.


Read the first chapter here if you’ve an inkling.

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.


  1. When my favorite reviewer-reviews my favorite author, I sit at my computer and bawl the entire time reading the darn thing.

  2. I’m reading this book right now. All I can think is why didn’t I read about May Amelia before this. You are quite right about the first chapter. Holm does beautifully set up the characters and setting and plot with a surprisingly few words. Sigh. I love reading this kind of book. Thanks for the great review.

  3. My sister (a school librarian) recommended My Only May Amelia to me when it first came out. Being the obnoxious younger sibling that I am, I refused to read it on general principles (i.e, “You can’t tell ME what I should read!”). I decided on my own (LOL) , to read The Trouble with May Amelia, and now I can’t seem to recommend it enough. Of course I went back and read the first one, and, of course, my sister was right.