Monday, April 20, 2015

Review - Umbrella Summer

Umbrella Summer
by Lisa Graff
Date: 2009
Publisher: HarperCollins
Reading level: MG
Book type: prose novel
Pages: 245
Format: e-book

Annie Richards knows there are a million things to look out for—bicycle accidents, food poisoning, chicken pox, smallpox, typhoid fever, runaway zoo animals, and poison oak. That's why being careful is so important, even if it does mean giving up some of her favorite things, like bike races with her best friend, Rebecca, and hot dogs on the Fourth of July. Everyone keeps telling Annie not to worry so much, that she's just fine. But they thought her brother, Jared, was just fine too, and Jared died.

It takes a new neighbor, who looks as plain as a box of toothpicks but has some surprising secrets of her own, to make Annie realize that her plans for being careful aren't working out as well as she had hoped. And with a lot of help from those around her—and a book about a pig, too—Annie just may find a way to close her umbrella of sadness and step back into the sunshine.

With winsome humor and a dash of small-town charm, Lisa Graff's third novel is a touching look at rising above grief and the healing power of community.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

I've had this book in my TBR pile for a while.  I'm not even sure why I bought it, now!  It was probably a bargain.  While I don't have an aversion to middle-grade titles, I found this book to be a little bit... well, young.  As a result, I'm not quite sure how to review it.

Please, dear author, I want some more...

Umbrella Summer is a very simple story about a ten-year-old girl named Annie.  Annie's older brother, Jared, died five months before the book begins.  As a result of this event, the whole family is pretty screwed up.  I appreciate that the author wanted to write a story about a tough subject, in a way that kids would understand.  While I have read middle-grade titles with some tough subject matter, they were mostly for the upper end of that age group.  Umbrella Summer is clearly intended for the lower end... and while kids might not notice some of the issues with the book, this adult reader did.

It's all a matter of taste...

Like I said, I appreciate what the author tried to do here.  Unfortunately, the whole resolution to the family's problems is just a little too pat and unrealistic.  Annie has developed a horrendous case of hypochondria as a result of her brother's death.  She thinks everything is going to kill her.  There's a long period of time when she actually fears she's contracted Ebola.  Her mother deals with the death through avoidance.  She cleans the house compulsively, works long hours, and keeps Jared's bedroom as an untouched shrine.  Her father basically becomes a zombie, and he's so forgetful that he comes across like someone with dementia.  I was not impressed with the way these issues were resolved.  All it took was the neighbour telling Annie that she was avoiding dealing with her feelings by putting up a proverbial umbrella, and then this ten-year-old magically fixes her parents.  I would have liked to see a little more realistic take on the whole issue.  I can't see that, after five months of wallowing in grief and getting entrenched in some very negative habits, they would all just learn to deal with the loss without some sort of professional counselling.

This is a book that's all about the characters, and I wasn't really crazy about any of them, though that may be because I wasn't the target audience.  Annie and her friends were just so young, and I had a difficult time relating to them.  Plus, they seemed to be written rather unrealistically.  When I was ten, I doubt I would have viewed a human catapult as a plausible way to gain entry to a neighbour's house or put up with my friend needing to holler every time she put on her bike helmet.  Some of these things seemed to be included for laughs; however, as an adult, I didn't find them very funny.  (The dead brother was my favourite character in the whole book... which is probably not a good sign.)

Let's get technical...

The writing in this one wasn't technically that bad, but I had one major issue with it: since it's told from Annie's first-person point of view, we're inside the head of a ten-year-old kid for most of the book.  But the author's hand is clearly visible when Annie suddenly uses dialogue that she probably wouldn't have used, or throws in poetic descriptions that just don't seem to fit with Annie's perception of the world.

The verdict...

I'm really not sure if I would recommend this one or not.  I know there are other adults (like me) who enjoy reading middle-grade fiction.  But this seems to be one of those books that will probably only appeal to its intended audience.  Early middle graders might like it... but it'll probably seem too juvenile for anyone older than that.

Quotable moment:

Sue Beth gave me a friendly smile when I went to stand next to her, which was nice because across the circle Rebecca and Nadia were both sticking their tongues out at me. I tried to ignore them while we started up the "Welcome Fellow Sunbirds" song.

Welcome fellow Sunbirds
We're glad to have you here
It's nice to have the Sunbirds
To help me through the years

Jared always called it "Welcome Fellow Dumb Birds," and once when I was all dressed up for a troop meeting, he even made up his own words to it.

Welcome fellow dumb birds
We're glad that we are dumb
Our outfits look so stupid
And our cookies taste like scum

I'd been real mad when he sang that one, his voice all high and squeaky. But I was starting to think that it was actually a pretty good version after all.

Premise: 4/5
Plot: 3/5
Characters: 2/5
Pace: 3/5
Writing: 3/5
Editing: 3/5
Originality: 3/5
Enjoyment: 2/5

Overall Rating: 2.86 out of 5 ladybugs

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