Is for Cousins. By Rajani LaRocca.
Illustrated by Abhi Alwar. Abrams. $17.99.
No matter what season the calendar tells us it is, there is always room
for some warm-weather fun – and it can be found in books, even when real-life
weather may be a touch on the chilly side. Rajani LaRocca’s Summer Is for Cousins is as warm and
warm-hearted as can be, neatly presenting the simple summer story of a large
and varied Indian family enjoying vacation with “all of us cousins,” as the
caption on one photo puts it. Indeed, there are no fewer than seven cousins,
plus the parents of narrator Ravi, plus two uncles, two aunts, and a set of
grandparents (Thatha and Pati). LaRocca makes the straightforward tale entertaining
by including small homespun touches (“I used to be the youngest, but now
there’s baby Leela”) and a little bit of uncertainty/mystery (will Ravi’s
oldest cousin, Dhruv, still share Ravi’s preference for a certain specific
flavor of ice cream?).
The inside front and back covers and their facing pages, very nicely
illustrated by Abhi Alwar, encapsulate the mood of the entire book, showing
what appear to be Polaroid photos (certainly not cellphone ones) that make
everyday occurrences into the stuff of which memories are made. One photo is
captioned “Headstand Contest” and shows two of the kids standing on their
heads; one shows a double-scoop ice-cream cone and is captioned “MMMMM”;
another, showing a rowboat being paddled in the lake near the summer home where
everyone is staying, is captioned “Merrily, Merrily, Merrily, Merrily”; still
another shows everyone gathered around a birthday cake and is captioned
And those are just the non-narrative parts of the book. The actual story
starts with everyone arriving at “a house that’s not any of ours” but is near
both the ocean and a lake, after which everyone tumbles inside and then comes
right back out again to go for ice cream. There are beach scenes and lake
scenes, experiments and gentle competitions involving paddleboarding and
floating and mini golf, games with a rope swing, and lots of time in the water.
“We spend our days biking, playing, reading, napping,” Ravi explains, and
Alwar’s illustrations of these ordinary-but-meaningful activities bring
LaRocca’s simple narration alive and help cement the underlying idea of the
book, which is as much about family togetherness as it is about summertime fun.
Nothing derails the pleasures of this time for this group, even when the
weather occasionally fails to cooperate: “When it rains, we stay inside and
work on a huge puzzle with tiny pieces.” And food – not just ice cream – is a
big part of the extended get-together. Some of it is ethnic (fish curry with
naan, lemon rice and korma), some of it is quintessentially American (veggie
burgers and corn, “pizza oozing with gooey cheese”), and all of it is
thoroughly enjoyed by everyone – as the illustrations make abundantly clear. And
the theme of ice cream recurs again and again, not only through Ravi’s mild
concerns about Dhruv’s flavor preference (which, of course, turns out not to
have changed) but also through an amusing scene in which Ravi offers to make
dessert for everyone, does some things in the kitchen, then brings a big and
heavy ball outside and gets everybody to roll the ball around – it turns out to
be an ice-cream-making ball, so the game concludes with a delicious homemade
Everything is delicious, literally and figuratively, in Summer Is for Cousins: the time of year, the travel, the temporary residence, the games and other activities, and, most of all, the interactions among the many members of the family (including the dog). There is no conflict, no trouble, no arguing, no sign of unhappiness anytime or about anything – it is about as perfect a summertime as anyone could wish for, no matter what season it may be when kids read the book and imagine experiencing or re-experiencing similar times in their own lives. It is simply a very sweet story, and not just because of the ice cream – although that certainly helps.