I was a little leery of this Kevin Henkes novel for a couple of reasons. First, I believe Henkes is at his best when he's writing picture books about talking mice, kittens, gardens, and rabbits. Second, the few times I have read a novel of his I've been disappointed. OLIVE'S OCEAN and BIRD LAKE MOON were both depressingly dark and dreary. If LILLY'S PURPLE PLASTIC PURSE, KITTEN'S FIRST MOON, and other picture book and early readers are his Summer Blockbusters of sorts, it feels like his novels are his creative, moody Indie flicks!
In JUNONIA, nine-year old Alice Rice travels from Wisconsin with her family to their vacation cottage on Sandibel Island in Florida. It's a trip Alice looks forward to every year and this year is no exception. Especially since Alice will be celebrating her tenth birthday with the summer "family" she's come to love. However when Alice discovers that many of the regular vacationers the family spends each summer with are not coming this year, she begins to worry that her special tenth birthday won't be so special after all.
On the surface, JUNONIA is a simple, quick read, with larger than normal text and only 176 pages of story. By story's end however, a lot of big ideas wash to shore. In a way, JUNONIA is about the loss of innocence. The moment in a child's life when they begin to realize they are outgrowing certain common comforts. Alice realizes this as she makes her way through a beachy graveyard at one point in the story, and ponders some of life's biggest questions (as only a ten-year old could). Of course the presence of the younger, more immature, Mallory forces Alice to behave and reason in a more grown-up way . . . but I felt that Alice was aware of these feelings the moment she stepped foot on Florida sand, long before Mallory even entered the picture.
One thing I've learned in seven years of teaching is that kids are thinkers. Their minds are always soaking in details and processing information and reacting to that information in one way or another. Kids are selfish, yet sensitive by nature and knowing how to react to all sorts of new feelings is not something they know how to do. One thing Henkes does so well in JUNONIA is depict how jumbled of a process this can be. Poor Alice is confused and frustrated and sad about so many things, and sorting out all of these feelings is new territory for her. Luckily she has a mother and a father who have the ability to read her face like a book and shown her the joy and release that can be found in letting go of things and accepting other people for who they are. So much in this book leaves Alice at a loss for words though, and Henkes does a marvelous job of portraying this.
I enjoyed JUNONIA. It's much more light-hearted than some of Henkes' more recent novels and the text has an airy, island feel to it. I loved the different descriptions of the many shells Alice collects and didn't even realize that there are so many different kinds of shells. In the end, I had hoped for a little more closure on Mallory and her situation, but I understand that this is Alice's story. Maybe down the road, Henkes will want to follow up on Mallory, but I'm afraid that story could only be a return to the dark and depressing Henkes I wasn't ever fond of. So for now, I'll appreciate JUNONIA for the junonia shell that it is.
Final Grade: B+