July 07, 2011


Tía Lola Stories No. 3: How Tía Lola Saved the Summer. By Julia Alvarez. Knopf. $15.99.

Junonia. By Kevin Henkes. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $15.99.

The Last Little Blue Envelope. By Maureen Johnson. HarperTeen. $16.99.

     The irrepressible Tía Lola returns for a third time in Julia Alvarez’ new book for ages 8-12. This time Alvarez creates a summer story rather than the school-year one in How Tía Lola Learned to Teach, which in turn followed How Tía Lola Came to Stay, a book in which a temporary visit from the Dominican Republic turned into something long-term and altogether wonderful. Everything Tía Lola does has a certain sense of wonder about it: Tía Lola is endlessly creative and always seems to know the right kind of fun to keep young children happy. This time, Tía Lola has to deal with a very unhappy Miguel, whose mother has agreed to let another family – a father with three daughters and a dog – live with them temporarily. The Espada (“sword”) family is trying to decide whether or not to move to Vermont, so their temporary residence with the Guzmans is a sort of trial run; but Miguel wants none of it. To the rescue comes Tía Lola, who decides to create a summer camp packed with games, treasure hunting, barbecues and a special end-of-summer surprise. Miguel is at first unconvinced: “Tía Lola loves everyone, boys and girls, so what would she know about girls getting in the way?” But of course it is just that -- Tía Lola’s love for everyone – that saves the summer for everyone. She is a kind of Mary Poppins figure: “Tía Lola being Tía Lola, she has a way of turning even a ridiculous contribution into something worthwhile.” The problems here are minor, the solutions heartwarming, and the overall family values presented straightforwardly and with emotion. There is nothing complicated or particularly deep about How Tía Lola Saved the Summer, which makes the book a good choice for summer reading.

     Junonia is also a good summer selection for the same age group. Kevin Henkes’ book is about Alice Rice, who will turn 10 during this summer’s family visit to Florida and who hopes, really hopes, that she will find a flawless junonia shell – a beach rarity. Alice hopes especially hard because the summer is not starting out very well: some of her favorite fellow vacationers are not coming this year, and one who is coming, “honorary aunt” Kate, is bringing along a new boyfriend who has a difficult-to-manage six-year-old daughter, Mallory, “such a sad little girl.” The junonia becomes something of an obsession for Alice: “Finding a junonia would be the perfect gift [for her 10th birthday]. She picked up one of her new tulip shells and turned it in the light. It was covered with bluish gray and brown markings. Its inner surface was lustrous. It was even more smooth than the lambs at the cemetery. It was many things, but it wasn’t a junonia.” This is one of those books deliberately written in a gentle, lyrical style, which can be as alluring and as lulling as the motion and soft noises of small waves at a beach. Eventually, Alice does find a junonia, but it turns out not to be what she expects, and everything goes wrong, until everything is reversed and goes right; and by the end of the book, after the family has packed up for the trip home from the beach, a very content Alice is left thinking, pleasantly if wholly unrealistically, “I will never be old. I will never die. It’s right now. I’m ten.” The book’s emotional ebb and flow will appeal to some preteen readers even as its lack of significant activity and rather narrow focus will make it rather dull reading for others.

     There is not supposed to be anything dull about the adventure that Ginny Blackstone has in The Last Little Blue Envelope. This is a summer-after-the-summer-before story for ages 12 and up. Ginny spent the previous summer following tasks laid out for her by her aunt in a series of letters written before the aunt died. Maureen Johnson chronicled those adventures in 13 Little Blue Envelopes, at the end of which Ginny’s backpack – containing the final little blue envelope – was stolen. So Ginny would never know what the last letter said, but would always remember the adventures she did have and the growth she experienced (“the adventures of the summer had been a triumph of imagination”). Fast-forward to this sequel, The Last Little Blue Envelope, in which the title object is in the hands of an English boy named Oliver, who contacts Ginny and says he has the envelope and the backpack. Now a sophisticated world (or at least European) traveler, Ginny, who has turned 18, picks up and heads from New Jersey to London and another adventure, this one taking her to England, Ireland, Belgium and France. It also takes her places emotionally, back to the thoughts of her artist aunt and forward into her own future in college…although where she will go to college remains uncertain until the very end of the book. Characters are actually better developed here than in the previous book, although the mysterious (and, of course, very attractive) Oliver is pretty thinly sketched. The book does not stand on its own – it will make little sense to anyone who has not read the previous one. But for those did read the first book, this one does a good job of answering a lot of questions left unanswered in 13 Little Blue Envelopes. It also offers a combination of new things with revisiting old places and old friends (although Ginny’s aunt had said you can never really go back, because each return is an entirely new experience). A satisfying followup for readers disappointed by not knowing what Aunt Peg’s last letter said or where it would have sent Ginny, The Last Little Blue Envelope will be enjoyable summer reading this year for teen girls who enjoyed the previous book last year.

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