Graphic Novel Review: Sunny Side Up

“We wrote this book so that young readers who are facing these same problems today don’t feel ashamed like we did. When someone in a family struggles with substance abuse, the whole family struggles.” p. 219

Sunny Side Up by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm, coloring by Lark Pien.
Graphix, Scholastic, New York, 2015.
MG historical fiction, 220 pages.
Lexile:  GN490L  .
AR Level:  2.4 (worth 0.5 points)  .

Sunshine Lewin is spending the summer in Florida visiting her grandfather, who lives in a retirement community there.  But that wasn’t the plan for this summer, and there’s something going on that she isn’t talking about.

Sunny Side Up cover resized

This series gotten a lot of buzz, both positive and negative.  The Holm duo are already well-known for their Babymouse series, but this is aimed at a slightly older crowd.  There will be some spoilers for this book discussed in my review, if you want to avoid them please scroll down to the final paragraph for my general opinion.

It’s historical fiction set in 1976, but some parents take issue with the fact that drug addiction and smoking are portrayed.  It’s difficult to tell from online hysteria whether or not a book is actually suitable for a certain age range or group of students, so I decided to see for myself.

This book is a good introduction to graphic novels for young readers who might struggle with the format, because the layout is very simple and straightforward.  Most pages have less than six panels, and the same six panel block series is used repeatedly.  Every chapter begins with a full-page location setting, and many also end with a full page.  Most panels are uncluttered, but they don’t have the clean look that El Deafo did because a different method of illustration is used.  Those features make this series very readable, but people accustomed to more intricate plots and illustrations (such as Awkward) may be less interested.

Sunny Side Up doesn’t have too much text and the storyline is not overly complex, but it’s full of emotion.  We meet Sunny as she lands in Florida, but there are also many flashbacks that take us to earlier points in the year.

In September 1975, Sunny’s agonized over her lunchbox choice for the first day of school.   The teacher asks if Sunny is any relation to Dale Lewin, who she had last year when she taught eleventh grade.  The teacher’s face darkens and Sunny cringes, her perfect first day ruined by the shadow of her big brother.

Over time the story of her brother unfolds through flashbacks.  Sunny has definitely experienced trauma through some of her brother’s actions, and this book might be helpful for counselors or parents of children who have experienced some trauma or who have mild PTSD.  Like many children, Sunny takes the blame upon herself.

In chapter six, Sunny finally meets another kid, Buzz the groundskeeper’s son.  The two become fast friends and he shares his love of comics with her.  Buzz’s parents are Cuban immigrants, so this character adds some much-needed diversity to this otherwise white story.  Buzz is later pivotal in a scene where Sunny mentally compares her brother to the Hulk.

Sunny Side Up p 160 resized
On page 160 Sunny and Buzz discuss comics.

In chapter ten, her grandpa goes to an early bird buffet with his friends.  They tell her to take a roll and butter with her for later.  It never comes up that this is technically stealing or why they would do that but it isn’t always appropriate.  Then in the next chapter’s flashback, Sunny’s brother pressures her into a lie about where they’ve been.

I have a special fondness for grandparent stories, and the relationship between Sunny and her grandfather was heartwarming.  Their connection grew and they got to know each other better over the course of the summer.  Sunny’s grandfather is trying to quit smoking, and she’s able to confront him in a way she never could with her brother.  Once she opens up about her fears, he is able to reassure her that what’s happening isn’t her fault.

Sunny Side Up p 195 resized
Page 195 needs few words to express strong emotion.

A carefully led class or book group would have a lot to discuss in this book.  I would include further resources, and prod into the socio-economic aspects a little more.  Sunny’s family had the extended support network and the financial means to send her to her grandfather for the summer so she didn’t have to see her brother going through withdrawal.  Not all families have that.  On the other hand, few people in her white middle class social networks have any understanding or experience of family addiction.  She’s left feeling isolated and confused.

| End of spoilers |

While the use of cigarettes and addiction are portrayed in this book, I found it acceptable for the intended audience.  Neither are portrayed positively, but the overarching message is that it’s okay to love a friend or relative struggling with addiction even as you hate their actions.  It may have some applications for younger or older students who have similar situations in their own lives.  I’d recommend a parent or teacher read alongside young readers to answer any questions or concerns that may arise.  Recommended.

Author: colorfulbookreviews

I work in a library by day and parent the rest of the time. I am passionate about good books representing the full spectrum of human diversity for every age group and reading level. This blog is my attempt to help parents, educators, and librarians find the best children's books authored by or featuring characters of color.

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