Friday, June 14, 2013

Review - "My Mixed-Up Berry Blue Summer"

How do we start to talk to our kids about tough issues? Not having any children myself, I’m often in the difficult position of having to advise parents on tackling tough subjects, offering books that might help them start a conversation. But one conversation that doesn’t seem to be happening in children’s literature for middle grade readers is that of gay marriage and gay equality. There are books for younger readers and listeners, picture books like Donovan’s Big Day and King and King that present gay marriage as a matter of fact, but once you pass the picture book stage, there’s very little out there. There are a few series that feature gay parents, like Lauren Myracle’s Flower Power series (two Moms) and Amy Ignatow’s Popularity Papers (two Dads), but it wasn’t until My Mixed-Up Berry Blue Summer by Jennifer Gennari that I saw a text that actively took the issue of gay marriage and equality and tried to make it relatable to a middle grade audience.

For eleven years of June Farrell’s life, it has been just June and her Mom. And this was okay. It wasn’t that June didn’t want a dad, or didn’t wonder what her biological dad was like, but her mom was her world, and she liked it that way. And then Mom met Eva, and everything changed. Now Vermont has passed a law allowing for civil unions for gay couples and June’s Mom wants to marry Eva. It’s not as if June doesn’t like Eva (though they certainly have their differences), but she’s not sure she wants an addition to her family. And then there’s the community to think about. It seems as if so many people are against the civil union law, and there’s even a campaign started to boycott the family business. All of this unrest interferes with June’s life, especially when her mom forbids June from entering a pie in the local fair. The whole summer seems to unravel for June, who has to decide how she feels about her mother, about Eve, about those who call her mother names and has to decide once and for all to stand up for herself and those she loves.

The subject matter of My Mixed-Up Berry Blue Summer is definitely not light fare. It gets a little heavy, especially with some of the truly unsettling name-calling that gets bandied about. But kids are smarter, savvier and more empathetic than we adults sometimes give them credit for. I think a book like this is important. Is it perfect? Hardly. The opposition, the Take Back Vermont-ers, is painted in very broad, one-note strokes. These are bad people, monsters even, a caricature which reduces the quality of the discussion. A parent would have to be on hand to explain that not everyone that opposes gay marriage is a foaming-at-the-mouth hate monger. But the book gains points in the struggle within June herself. She wavers on how she feels about having a gay Mom, about having a new step-mother, about what it means to have people out there hate you just for being who you are. In June’s struggle, Gennari has found her conversation, and parents and caregivers can find a starting off point to talking about a very sensitive issue.

Overall, I feel as if a book like this can do more good than harm. Anything that teaches and encourages our kids to think out of the box and for themselves and think about the need for equality among all people is a good thing. We need more of this conversation.

My Mixed-Up Berry Blue Summer by Jennifer Gennari
2012, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Library copy

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