When you are young, birthdays are near magical occurrences (they’re still magical as you get older, but what kind of magic is hard to say). Birthdays make you older, bring you closer to a goal. They bring you presents and family and friends. And cake. We can’t forget the cake. Our lives are marked by birthdays, and it often seems that life changing events seem to follow in course. In Kevin Henkes’, Junonia, we have a coming of age tale that culminates in an eventful birthday party, told with Henkes’ dependable eloquent style and touch of grace.
It is the week of Alice Rice’s tenth birthday, and she and her parents are off on their yearly Floridian vacation. This was supposed to be her perfect year, the year she turned ten. It was the year she would finally find a junonia shell, a rare and beautiful shell she needs to add to her impressive collection. But right from the start, things don’t go the way Alice planned. Her usual set of vacation friends have failed to show, leaving her disappointed and a bit lonely. She searches often, but finds no trace of a junonia, outside of the ones for sale at the local shell shop. And worst of all, her Aunt Kate (her mother’s good friend) is coming, but not alone. She brings with her a boyfriend and his daughter, six year old Mallory. Alice tries to be friendly with Mallory, and at times it works, but Mallory is a girl with problems and expectations of her own, and they do not always go along with what Alice has planned.
Alice is a very introspective girl, and Junonia is a very thoughtful novel. Perhaps it is a bit too thoughtful, too articulate for a girl of only ten, but it reads beautifully, and one can easily allow Henkes his poetic license. Even with its expressive excess, Junonia does very well at getting to the heart of Alice and understanding her joys and her disappointments. Her parents are a source of warmth and sympathy, a sterling example of novel parents. The relationship between Alice and Mallory is a complicated one, as any relationship between a newly minted ten year old and a six year old. The blowout at Alice’s birthday party is handled very well and feels very realistic. One final scene involving the junonia shell is particularly heartbreaking in Alice’s understanding of the situation. Birthdays are magical, and they do make us older, but with growing up comes growing pains, and with Junonia Henkes gives us a sweet, touching tale of growing pains that is sure to intrigue readers, especially those quieter ones who look calmly through the stacks until they’ve found that perfect book, just for them.
Junonia by Kevin Henkes
2011, HarperCollins Children’s Books
Copy provided by publisher