CBR11Bingo – Own Voices!
Holy poop, this is my 52nd review! I’ve officially cannonballed! Not that I’ll stop playing now, though.
I am a huge fan of Julie Murphy’s YA books, so when I saw the ARC for her middle grade debut was available at Book Expo, I knew I’d be snapping it up both for my pleasure reading and for my work on the RI Middle School Book Award Committee! While I’d usually save my off-committee summertime for “anything but children’s books”, I decided to put this front and center since I’m such a fan of the author, and am always excited to see a children’s book that has positive representation of a fat and/or queer kid.
Dear Sweet Pea focuses on its title character, Sweet Pea (full name Patricia), whose parents have just divorced but are doing everything they can to ease their daughter into her new life. They’ve gone so far as to make sure her father rented a matching house just two doors down from their family home, which they painstakingly recreated in the style of her original home, so the only difference is the single parent residing at home instead of two. As if that could make her life could feel any less shook up than it is. Sure, her parents get along. Sure, they even seem to still like each other. So wait, why did they even split up in the first place?
At least Sweet Pea has an after-school job to enjoy alongside the end of her seventh grade year: checking the mail for her next door neighbor, local celebrity Miss Flora Mae, who pens the popular advice column “Miss Flora Mae I?” in their local paper. Miss Flora Mae is attending to family business out of town, so Sweet Pea’s job is to collect the letters from readers to forward to Miss Flora’s vacation spot, and in turn collect her mailed responses to leave for the newspaper editor to pick up. Sweet Pea is also to water the plants and play them the local Motown station, a whole lot of music Sweet Pea’s never heard before (Aretha who?). So it is with this job that Sweet Pea escapes, sneaking peeks at the local’s problems while taking in some pretty amazing old tunes.
When Sweet Pea notices a letter in familiar handwriting, her summer takes a more interesting turn. Her former-best-friend Keira has written into the advice column, and while the two haven’t spoken kindly to each other for years, it seems that Keira’s home life may have more in common with her own than Sweet Pea knew. She can’t resist – she removes the letter from Miss Flora’s pile and sneaks in a response of her own — and it is scooped up with the rest of Miss Flora’s letters before Sweet Pea can think the better of it. And once she’s had a taste of the advice column life, she can’t resist saving herself a letter in each future mailing…
Julie Murphy’s earnestness, diverse characters, and authenticity is once again on display in her middle grade debut. Sweet Pea is a big kid, and the author, whose own experience is being a fat woman, shares the ups and downs of that, allowing Sweet Pea’s size to just be, but honestly sharing the experiences of what shopping and gossip are like. Sweet Pea’s parents are supportive, though, and it’s definitely not an issues book – it’s just her life. Her best friend Oscar is also a big kid, and one who’s sexuality is questioning (it’s not the only queer rep in the book either — again, I’m pretty sure the author reps the rainbow flag, hence my own voices tag).
I will be honest and share that I didn’t LOVE this book as much as I love her YA ones. It felt very young – but I’m not sure if this is because I’m comparing it to her YA or if I’ve been out of the middle grade world awhile and need to readjust. It certainly didn’t hurt the readability of the book — it was just a surprise.
As for if I’ll nominate it or our award committee — I likely will! I like the representation it brings to the table and I know a lot of readers would love it. The themes of changing friendships and family life, being an “unpopular” kid, and making some less-than-thought-out choices will resonate with a lot of middle schoolers.
I read and reviewed an advanced reader copy (ARC) – the book will be published in October of this year.