The Thirteenth Tale: Diane Setterfield
"Better" vs. More Enjoyable Reading

Shug: Jenny Han

I've seen several rave reviews of Shug by Jenny Han. When I first started it I wasn't sure what the fuss was about. A middle school girl who grew up with a boy from the neighborhood as her best friend now realizes that she is in love with him. He, naturally, is interested in someone else, someone more popular. Throw in some family dysfunction, and you get a John Hughes film. And yet, as I read on I found that Shug transcends the traditional coming of age story, and makes it shine.

Annemarie (called Shug by her family) is just starting middle school. She struggles with new teachers, popularity and cliques, and her changing relationship with her old friend Mark. She has scored a coup in become best friends with new girl Elaine (exotic by virtue of being the only Korean-American in the school), but she worries that Elaine will "break up with her" in favor of the two alpha females in their class. She drifts away from her old friend Sherilyn, who is relegated to a less popular crowd, but she feels guilty about it. She wears a one-piece bathing suit when all of the other girls are wearing two-piece suits, and she's the only one not excited to go to the fall dance.

Shug feels uncertain and resentful as the other kids start to pair off, and lost when Mark wants to pair off with someone else. In short, she feels like most girls feel when they start middle school. Uncertain of what's expected of them, and how to adjust to the new school, and new social rules. I was reminded several times of my own junior high school feelings and experiences. It's amazing how timeless these feeling are. Here's an example:

"This is because Elaine is special; she is clearly one of them. But she chooses to stay by me. Some days it feels too good to be true. It's like my days are numbered, like one day soon she'll realize that I'm a nobody just like Sherilyn. One day Elaine will realize that she made a colossal mistake picking me, that she should have chosen Mairi and Hadley after all. But today is not that day." (Chapter 8)

What's particularly impressive about Jenny Han's achievement in showing us Annemarie's ordinary insecurities and fears is that Shug is actually both smart and popular. She's in honors classes, and, though with some misgivings, she hangs out with the most socially elite members of her class. It's not some stereotypical, artificial thing like "Oh, it's hard to be popular. People don't understand." Annemarie's feelings are genuine, and she never comes close to gloating over any successes. She feels real.

The other thing that sets this book apart from your standard middle school popularity and dating story is Annemarie's relationship with her family. She admires her older sister, Celia. Han conveys a realistic blend of sibling rivalry and sibling loyalty, never going too far in either direction. Shug accepts her sixteen-year-old sister to choose friends and boyfriend over family, but she still misses Celia.

Annemarie's father travels most of the time for work, coming in from time to time and disrupting that routines that have been established in his absence. He and Annemarie's mother have a tempestuous relationship, loving when he first comes home, eroding to fights and recriminations after a day or two. This dynamic is not enhanced by the fact that Annemarie's mother drinks too much. Here are some examples:

"When Daddy is home, we make more of an effort to be "a real family." It's like, Daddy's home, let's pretend like we are the family we should be... When we're all together nobody mentions how Daddy's away more than he is home, or how the gaps in between are getting bigger and bigger. A lot of the time, the Wilcox family feels like make-believe." (Chapter 15)

"It's not like she drinks all the time. There'll be times when she won't drink anything for days... And then Daddy will call and ruin everything. He'll say he's not coming home this weekend, or he will come home and they'll fight the way they always do. Then she'll drink. Sometimes it's like there's this well of sadness inside her, and she has to drink to fill it up. And then sometimes it's like there's a monster inside of her, and drinking's the only thing that will calm it down. And sometimes she drinks just because." (Chapter 27)

What's interesting about Shug's Mama is that she's not your stereotypical bad mother who drinks too much. Usually in books these are women who haven't had opportunities, are beaten down by life, and turn to alcohol or dangerous men for consolation. (A Room on Lorelei Street and Out of Focus, to name two recent examples). Shug's Mama is educated. She attended a fancy college in the Northeast, and named her daughters after characters from The Color Purple. Money doesn't appear to be a problem. But she's clearly a Mom hanging on by her fingernails. She doesn't cook for her daughters when their father is out of town. She can't be counted on for help with clothes, or for sincere advice. Shug goes to her at one point to talk, fully anticipating mockery. She's manipulative, defeated, and charming, all in turn. But she still loves her daughters. The depth of the family dynamics, and their influence on Shug, stand out.

Upon finishing this book, my first thought was that I wanted to buy it for the three sixth grade girls who I know. I think that it's a near-perfect window into starting middle school, and the struggle to balance being oneself against fitting in. I highly recommend it.

Book: Shug
Author: Jenny Han (blog)
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing
Original Publication Date: April 2006
Pages: 256
Age Range: 10-14
Source of Book: Santa Clara City Library
Other Blog Reviews: Frances Dowell, Not Acting My Age, A Fuse #8 Production, Welcome to my Tweendom, Little Willow

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.