I adored Jordan Sonnenblick's Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie, a book that I picked up largely because it had such a great title, and found to be much more than I had expected. Therefore, I was thrilled to learn that Sonnenblick has a sequel to Drums, Girls coming out in February, and even more thrilled to get my hands on an advance copy.
First of all, if you haven't read Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie, please do NOT read this review. Any description of After Ever After includes inevitable spoilers about the end of Drums, Girls. Here's a snippet from my review of Drums, Girls:
"What do you do if you're a thirteen year old boy (Steven), passionate about the drums, struggling to relate to girls, and then your five year old pesky younger brother Jeffrey is diagnosed with cancer? Answer: you pass through numerous stages of denial and rebellion, before coming to terms with your place in the situation. I mean it as a huge compliment when I say that this book feels like it was written by a thirteen year old. Steven's voice is believable and consistent and achingly real."
If you haven't read it, go read. Still here? OK, then. Don't say you weren't warned.
I had high expectations for After Ever After, and it did not disappoint. Apart from a few flashbacks, After Ever After takes place during Jeffrey's eighth grade year. He has beaten cancer, though it's left him with nerve damage in one foot and brain damage that makes school, especially math, a real struggle. On top of his disabilities, Jeffrey is dealing with his best friend Tad's interpersonal issues (Tad is also a childhood cancer survivor), the looming spectre of a statewide assessment exam, the absence of his beloved brother Steven, and his first real crush on a girl.
This is vintage Jordan Sonnenblick. We have an adolescent boy, flawed but well-intentioned, dealing with both mundane and profound issues (See also Becky Levine's thoughts on the nature of Sonnenblick's heroes). I personally think that the secret to Sonnenblick's success is that he "gets" the teen male voice. I can't think of anyone writing now who does this better. (Jordan is a former middle school English teacher - you can read his bio here.)
Jeffrey, like Steven before him, feels real. He is star-struck by Lindsey, the new girl from California. He looks up to his older brother, even after Steven (in a much-delayed rebellion) abandons him. Although he occasionally lapses into self-pity, for the most part he is matter-of-fact about his cancer and his physical difficulties. He is self-deprecating, and uses humor to mask his insecurities. Here are a few examples of Jeffrey's voice:
"He looks at me like I'm a particularly loathsome slice of school-lunch meat loaf and says, "Wow, congratulations! What do you want, a medal?"
That's how I meet my best friend." (Page 3, ARC)
"Sometimes it's hard to know whether I should curl up in a ball and die of embarrassment, or give myself a hearty high five." (Page 24, ARC)
"Mr. Laurenzano gave us a whole spiel about how just because science wasn't on the state test, that didn't mean it wasn't an important subject. Plus, he said, we'd be using tons of math and reading skills in our science work, so obviously we should pay careful attention in his class every single instant. At least, I think that's what he said, but I wasn't paying such careful attention." (Page 38, ARC)
The reason that I loved this book was that it gave me a chance to get to know Jeffrey, a character that I already cared about, from the inside. I love that After Ever After touches on several of Jeffrey's memories from his cancer treatment. We see Jeffrey's perspective on events already described by Steven in Drums, Girls. This made me want to go back and re-read Drums, Girls (which I read nearly 2 years ago).
But I liked other things about After Ever After, too. Tad is an especially intriguing character. He's prickly, defensive, and difficult, yet fiercely loyal to Jeffrey. Here's a passage that sums him up quite well:
"Look, Jeff, when you're all the way at the edge of the action, in a wheelchair, you see things."
"Oh, so all of a sudden having bad legs turns you into the Girl Whisperer."
"No, it's just -- everybody is afraid to stare at me, so they try not to look at me at all. While they're not looking at me, I can study them. And believe me, I think you have a shot with Lindsey." (Page 62, ARC)
Clearly, Sonnenblick has talked with actual kids who have been through cancer, and/or have physical difficulties. I don't have any doubt about that. There's also a fabulous passage (which I'm not going to quote, because you should read it with the book) from Jeffrey about how kids who have had cancer aren't surprised when things go wrong, in the way that other kids aren't. [I've actually found this to be true for adults, too. There is something about a cancer diagnosis that makes future challenges less surprising.]
My only complaint about After Ever After is that I think that Sonnenblick did a bit too good a job in conveying Jeffrey's flawed self-esteem. He sees himself as this short, chubby kid with a limp and a tendency to space out. This makes it feel a tad implausible that the gorgeous, funny, smart Lindsey will fall for him. But that's coming from me as an adult reader. I think that the target audience of middle school boys will probably like it. And certainly I was happy for Jeffrey in his triumphs, just as I felt for him in his tribulations.
After Ever After will be published February 1st of 2010. It is worth the wait, a must-read title for fans of Jordan Sonnenblick's novels. My suggestion, if you can spare the time, is to re-read Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie in January, to be ready for this one when it's available (I'll remind you). Though After Ever After is written from an eighth grade boy's perspective, I think that girls will enjoy it, too. Highly recommended.
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. All Amazon links in this post are affiliate links, and may result in my receiving a small commission on purchases (with no additional cost to you).