Thanks to NetGalley, Wattpad Books and author Daven McQueen for providing the eARC in exchange for an honest review.
The Invincible Summer of Juniper Jones
Publisher: Wattpad Books
Release date: 16 June 2020
Genre: Young Adult Historical Fiction
It’s the summer of 1955. For Ethan Harper, a biracial kid raised mostly by his white father, race has always been a distant conversation. When he’s sent to spend the summer with his aunt and uncle in small-town Alabama, his Blackness is suddenly front and center, and no one is shy about making it known he’s not welcome there. Except for Juniper Jones. The town’s resident oddball and free spirit, she’s everything the townspeople aren’t―open, kind, and full of acceptance.
Armed with two bikes and an unlimited supply of root beer floats, Ethan and Juniper set out to find their place in a town that’s bent on rejecting them. As Ethan is confronted for the first time by what it means to be Black in America, Juniper tries to help him see the beauty in even the ugliest reality, and that even the darkest days can give rise to an invincible summer.
Note: The quotes below are taken from an advanced/unfinished copy and are subject to change in the final version.
“It is also, first and foremost, a story about race. It’s a story about the struggle that it was and is to be black in America. And because that is a hard thing, this story deals heavily with racism in the attitudes and languages of certain characters.”
(CW: racism, use of racial slurs (the n-word), bullying)
The Invincible Summer of Juniper Jones… What do I even say? This is not an easy book to swallow or digest! I’m not going to lie, I read the majority of this book with one of those ‘movie intro’ voice overs (along the lines of Morgan Freeman’s soothing voice) narrating in my head because from the word go this book literally played out like a movie in my head (a la My Girl, Forrest Gump etc.).
I knew that this book would affect me but what I didn’t expect was how much. From the opening notes by the author to the final pages as Ethan gets his ‘closure’, this book is tough. I’m pretty sure I cried through 80% of it not only because it was such an emotionally heavy read, but also because of how relevant it is at this moment. There has been so much hurt, anger, sadness and frustrated energy that has been projected globally after the death of George Floyd, and the following protests and riots; so maybe that has influenced my reading experience. Although I’ll say that as an emotional reader I’m quite sure I still would’ve ended up crying for a good chunk of this book even with none of what’s happening right now.
First, I want to touch on the writing. There were points when the writing did get a bit too purple but overall, it was very atmospheric and beautifully descriptive. I loved how McQueen described certain things (whether objects, surroundings or people) in ways that I would’ve never imagined but I was still able to so easily call these images to mind and picture it unfolding before me. McQueen manages to bring the hot and sticky summer days in Alabama to life and it felt as if I was there in the heat with Ethan and Juniper, adventuring through a quiet town surrounded by trees with a lake in the middle. Despite the fear that dogs Ethan’s summer in Ellison, there was a certain childhood whimsy to the ‘invincible summer adventures’ between the two that really warmed my heart and made me nostalgic. At the same time, I felt the underlying current of dread that kept me on my metaphorical toes while reading as I waited for the other shoe to drop, and it made me want to stop reading but also keep reading at the same time!
I loved Ethan and Juniper. I felt so much for both of them being the outcasts in this small middle-of-nowhere town full of racists and small-minds. They both experience such growth over the course of a summer and it was both heartwarming and heartbreaking. I don’t have adequate words to express how horrifying and devastating it was to read Ethan’s innocence be so quickly and completely swept away as the days passed in Ellison. I can’t imagine having to deal with that level of anxiety and fear at such a young age for just being who you are; because of the colour of your skin. I was flabbergasted that Ethan’s father, who(‘s white and) grew up there and knew what the people are like, could even think to send his biracial son there. So much wilful ignorance and it boils my blood! Like many YA novels, this book has the ‘missing parent’ syndrome, although Ethan’s aunt and uncle were more-or-less present they didn’t have a big role, but I wished that Ethan’s parents were more visible; especially his mother as it would’ve given the book more depth/strength.
On the other hand, Juniper was… a breath of fresh air. She was a total whirlwind and brought so much life to the page that her character seemed almost real in front of me. She “marches to the beat of her own drum” and you can sense she has experienced a lot of her own suffering, yet those differences makes her more understanding and accepting of others. She was by no means perfect and even made some painful mistakes, but she really tried her best in the way she knew how and ended up being a very headstrong and wonderfully supportive friend to Ethan. I’m quite sure we could all benefit from having a Juniper Jones in our lives! I do wish we learned more about her backstory but I do understand why we didn’t. *Gah, so many emotions!*
When the story opened with Ethan in 2015, I thought I knew where we were headed and who he was originally talking about but… wow, I was so wrong? Maybe I was naive to think that nothing worse could happen but that ‘twist’ in the story sprung up on me and left me gasping! I just…oh my days. I think what’s the most painful to realise is that despite this being a historical fiction, it’s evident that not all that much has changed. As a POC, I have experienced instances of racism from when I lived in Australia and the UK but never to the extent that I’ve had to fear for my life because of the colour of my skin; and it’s upsetting to say that that in itself is a privilege because it shouldn’t be.
I’m not sure what else to say. This book couldn’t be more relevant right now and I think it contributes well to the discussion of how deeply racism is rooted in society and how privilege is there whether you want it, acknowledge it, accept it or not. The Invincible Summer of Juniper Jones is well-written and although the subject matter is complex and difficult to digest, it’s accessible. I’m so glad that I read this book and I’ve already pre-ordered it to for my physical shelves!
Daven McQueen grew up outside of Los Angeles, California. She graduated from Brown University, where she earned a B.A. in literary arts and economics. When she’s not writing, Daven can be found tap dancing, embroidering, cooking, and eating dessert. She lives in Boston, Massachusetts and works in education.
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