Review: Jelly Bean Summer by Joyce Magnin (courtesy of NetGalley)

I recently joined NetGalley, a website which provides professional readers (I guess I’m one now) and bookish bloggers (I guess that’s more like it) with advance reader copies of upcoming releases.  By the time I got my Jelly Bean Summer ARC, it was already a few days after the book was released (May 2nd, 2017), but I suppose reviewing it can’t hurt. 🙂  (In case it wasn’t obvious, all opinions expressed in this review are my own.

Publisher’s Details:

Age Range: 8 – 12 years

Grade Level: 3 – 7

Hardcover: 272 pages

Publisher: Sourcebooks Jabberwocky (May 2, 2017)

Description: Set in 1968 during the height of Vietnam War, Jelly Bean Summer is the story of the unlikely friendship that forms between two lonely tweens during an unforgettable summer of camping on rooftops. 

Joyce has had it with her family (especially with UFO-sighting Elaine who loves her guinea pig more than her own sister). Her solution? Move out of the house and pitch a tent on the roof for the summer. But when she spots a boy watching her from a neighboring roof she’s stunned—and intrigued. 

Brian recently lost his brother, and the two instantly bond over their messed-up families. To help Brian repair his brother’s truck, they concoct a scheme to build and sell tickets to a UFO display. Even Elaine agrees to help…until unexpected events test the limits of Joyce’s family ties.

Reader’s Score: 3.75 / 5 stars

The main character is an eleven year old girl named Joyce Magnin (also the author’s name) growing up during the Vietnam War.  The few facts I know about the Vietnam War era fascinate me.  It’s hard to get a truly unbiased account, because it’s still so recent and still so raw for those who lived through it and are still alive today.  Whether you’re talking to the traumatized veterans or the anti-war protesters, listening to the music of the period, or reading modern-day history books, it’s really hard to find an unbiased account of what really went on.  But I try to take in as many perspectives as I can, so I can piece together a cohesive narrative for myself.  Hearing about it from the voice of an eleven year old girl is bound to make it more engaging to young readers today who are curious about life during this tumultuous time in America.

Right away, the story immerses me in the time period, the setting, through the characters themselves.  We’re introduced, by proxy, to Joyce’s older brother who is “MIA” (missing in action) in Vietnam, and Elaine, Joyce’s teenage sister.  Joyce’s relationship with Elaine is strained, mostly because of their different stages of adolescence/maturity.  The fact that Elaine is a full-fledged “flower child” and believes in UFOs doesn’t help matters.  Joyce is just an timelessly ordinary girl with timelessly relatable problems who’s trying to make sense of it all – I suppose it’s her narrative which allows contemporary readers to connect with the story.

Joyce is a likeable character – she’s not a perfect, well-behaved kids, but perfect, well-behaved kids seldom make interesting protagonists.  She’s at that lovely age where kids think they know better than their parents, and she has a thing for using big, dictionary words, kind of like me.  At the ripe old age range of young adulthood, I really didn’t think I’d find an eleven year old protagonist to be this relatable!

As Joyce gets to know Brian, an older kid on the block who is determined to make his late brother’s truck “roadworthy,” I find her reactions to his life endearing.  Brian will be sent away to Arizona because his father can no longer care for him; his mother died and his brother was lost in Vietnam, like Joyce’s brother.  We see her innocence and blissful naivete as she assumes Brian has the same privileges that she takes for granted at home, and I think this sets the ball rolling for her to appreciate everything she wants to leave behind under her family’s rooftop.

I also enjoyed the various references to food and media consumed by people native to the time period that are sprinkled throughout the book, from Herr’s potato chips to the Monkees Red Skelton.  Some of these things are familiar to me, and others, I remember my grandparents talking about.  As a lover of vintage, retro things, this book put me in my element!

There’s a point in the story where both Joyce and Brian decide they need to leave home, to get away from their broken families and the breaks they caused themselves.  The grownup in me keeps wanting to yell, “Don’t do it, Joyce!”  The kid in me totally gets Joyce and Brian’s thirst for adventure and the desperate need to get away from it all in the only way they know how.

The final chapters of the book deal with PTSD and the treatment of American soldiers who were drafted to fight in Vietnam.  It’s a powerful segment, showing how people with good intentions can be the ones to cause the most pain.  In this period, Joyce also learns about not acting “too soon” when helping others deal with their losses.  That phrase has been used plenty of times in jest, but Joyce starts understand it in all seriousness, about how it takes time for people to heal, and the importance of waiting to broach sensitive subjects.

Overall, Jelly Bean Summer was an enjoyable read for me at my current stage of life.  The characters were vividly portrayed and the protagonist, especially, was loveable and relatable despite living in the past.  The fact that she shares the name of the author makes me wonder if this book is an autobiographical work, and how much of the story is based on real-life events.  YA fiction books are often praised for having strong, independent heroines; I think this middle-grade book nails the portrayal of a young, precocious protagonist.

Since the book is already out, you can purchase a copy of your own on Amazon, and probably wherever you like to buy your mainstream-published books.  To learn more about the author, you can visit Joyce Magnin at her blog:

Content notes / parental advisory:

There’s definitely some mild language of the PG-rated variety.  Adult characters occasionally use words like “ass.”  When Joyce herself uses “damn” as an expletive, she’s immediately reprimanded by her mother for this.  She describes her family, according to her neighbors, as “bat-poo crazy.”  There’s also the occasional name-calling between Joyce and Elaine, “pig-face” and “creep.”  Nothing horrendous.

If I were eleven years old myself, I probably would have cringed at every expletive.  If I were eleven years old and my school was making me read this, I would’ve cringed even more.  I’ve grown out of that due to necessity, but let’s just say I can see this book garnering the approval of the Newbery award-giving council. 😛

Also, for bonus points in the Newbery department, there’s the occasional talk of Joyce growing up.  Elaine remarks that Joyce needs to buy a bra already.  Joyce remarks at one point that she’s glad that real women don’t look like Barbie, because getting dolly clothes over Barbie’s ample torso is difficult.  At age eleven, that too would have made me blush, but I don’t disagree with the last point at this point in my life.  It’s a nice, subtle social comment about the damage classic Barbies did to girls’ body image.

If you’re a conscientious parent who feels your kids aren’t ready to read about these things, I thought you’d would like to know.  If you feel your tween / if you’re a tween who isn’t sensitive to this stuff, this book is certainly worth a read.  Its redeeming qualities include a nice peek into a controversial period of American history through the eyes of a precocious young protagonist, and it really is written well.

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