Sunny Side Up
Sunny Side Up is the newest work by the sibling team who created the unstoppable Babymouse. Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm unspool a semi-autobiographical story about family that packs a sucker-punch, in that you won’t see it coming but it will leave you with a new perspective on how we hurt others.
It’s the 70s, and Sunny’s been sent to spend the summer with Gramps. Seems ok, although she has trouble adapting to the slow pace of life in his retirement community. As the story progresses, though, the reader learns more about why Sunny’s really there, and how the weight of what she’s been asked to hide wears on her.
The art is friendly, deceptively simple in a way that makes it approachable. I like the way Holm easily moves between establishing elements of the setting and details of daily life. The reader quickly understands that time and place while noting the universal elements of spending time with grandparents. The bright colors represent sunshine and summer, and individual moments are funny.
Sunny isn’t the only kid around; Buzz, the groundskeeper’s son, introduces her to comic books, a part of this almost-memoir that many readers will identify with. The ridiculous wonder of the concepts, the easy heroism, the colorful appearances, the sound of the spinner rack, the imaginative escape all grab her attention.
Meanwhile, flashbacks build the mystery. Sunny’s original plans for the summer were a shore house visit with the family and a friend. As the flashbacks continue, they close the gap with the present day, revealing a family struggle. It’s painful, with deep roots and effects, and it’s easier to avoid facing the truth. It’s the kind of secret no one wants to talk about, not even the book, it feels like. By putting off coming to terms with what happened, and why, our experience parallels Sunny’s.
She has my sympathy, in that she has nothing to do with the problem, but it’s going to shape her life anyway. And she’s going to be distracted by it at random times, no matter what she wants or what she’s doing. Others judge her by what they think of her family members, unfairly. By the time Sunny snaps and lets it out, I was internally cheering for her.
Sunny Side Up combines a light memoir of a long-ago summer with a powerful meditation on family secrets and how the lies we tell ourselves can affect those we care about. An author’s note make the message clear, with good suggestions for the kid audience to pay attention to. (The publisher provided a review copy.)