Stars: 4.5 out of 5
I was eager to see what one of my favorite childhood series authors was up to these days. As usual, she was busy delving into the lives of young girls going through some pretty big changes, and their friendships, and their small towns. This first book of the series opens with two sisters being taken in by their grandmother after their parents are killed in a car crash (which the girls were in too). So right off the bat, really heavy stuff. They move with the grandmother to her small town and we start learning about the rest of the neighbors on their street.
There are some kids the girls’ ages, one of whom becomes older sister Flora’s best friend. There is also a teenaged boy with Down syndrome and a few older people dealing with getting older and Alzheimer’s. While those elements made it surprisingly dark for a kids’ book, I really liked the way Martin introduced those tough topics – matter-of-factly, with descriptions and then, maybe, labels. We learn that Robby is sixteen, but something about his behavior doesn’t match with his age. Through the eyes of one of the neighbor girls who watches him, we spend some time with him and I could match his behavior with that of other people with Down syndrome that I have known, bringing me to that conclusion and then reading confirmation in a conversation between Flora and her new best friend, Olivia.
Speaking of Olivia, she informs us well into the book, also matter-of-factly, that she is African American. I am always interested to see how characters’ race is presented – not only characters who are not Caucasian, or by authors who are not Caucasian. Do Caucasian authors take it for granted that their characters are white, and only mention race if it is non-white? Do non-white authors do the opposite? Olivia comments on her race as being different than the rest of her neighbors’, with the exception of Mr. Pennington (and her family), but in general the subject was handled much more tactfully than in lots of books – for kids and adults alike.
The other big topic is addressed by Nikki Sherman, a girl from a poor family that lives a ways out of town. We meet her first through Flora and Olivia’s eyes, seeing her shabby dress and learning that she doesn’t bathe as regularly as her peers. And then we spend some time with Nikki herself, suffering her indignities of being looked down on in her small town, living with an alcoholic father and a mentally absent mother, trying her best to fill their domestic adult roles, and being mysteriously (to me) taken under the wing of a rich lady determined to change her. Olivia, it turns out, is one of her tormentors, but coming to Flora’s grandmother’s sewing shop for lessons with the rich lady, they eventually make amends. I can see them gelling as a threesome in the future books and going on to take Camden Falls by storm, teaching their neighbors tolerance and understanding and all those feel-good storylines that wrap up neatly.