When you’re prepubescent, sexuality can be confusing. If you’re not exposed to the topic early on (or if it isn’t discussed openly—or at all—at home), a lot of questions can arise.
At school, Health class usually (well, hopefully) covers the bases as far as biology is concerned, but what about the feelings and emotions associated with sexuality . . . when are those talked about? Where can kids be comfortable airing their concerns about what happens after puberty without setting off a round of giggles or feeling like they’ll be made fun of?
What’s more, young people can be especially cruel when it comes to behavior that is considered “outside the realm of normalcy.” When I was growing up, calling someone “gay” in middle school was considered an insult. Kids that didn’t exhibit “straight behavior” at all times were bullied and ostracized. Later when we got to college, we realized how wrong we were (and I use the word “we” to mean the general middle school population; I never participated in this kind of ridiculous and antagonistic behavior). In fact, some of the loudest abusers either made good friends who were gay or came out themselves.
As you get older, you (hopefully) learn that it’s important to accept people in spite of or even because of their differences—and once you understand that basic concept, there’s no going back. But some middle-graders and young adults are lucky enough to grasp this golden nugget early on. In Jennifer Gennari’s debut novel My Mixed-Up Berry Blue Summer, 12-year-old June Farrell is one such kid. Her story is never preachy, always realistic, and perfectly suitable for middle-grade readers (i.e. there aren’t any sex scenes and sex isn’t overtly discussed).
Set in Vermont’s Lake Champlain against the backdrop of the civil union law’s recent passing, My Mixed-Up Berry Blue Summer finds June in a funk. Eva has just moved in with June and MJ (June’s biological mom), and June doesn’t like it one bit. For one thing, Eva’s “all fussy and difficult.” Plus, she knows nothing about steering a boat, fishing, or any of the other summer activities June finds comforting. The last thing June needs is another female opinion around the house—her mother’s is strong enough. What she wants, instead, is what other kids have—a father.
As time passes, June’s troubles extend beyond the home. Some of her peers at school make wisecracks behind her back for having “two mommies.” The debate about civil unions heats up and angry neighbors post anonymous “Take Back Vermont” signs around town, saying “homosexuality is unnatural, especially in the eyes of God” and calling for the boycott of LGBT-owned establishments, including the café MJ runs by the marina. Like they’ve done in the past, June hopes to keep flying under the radar. But the ever outspoken Eva brings their family issues out into the open. When confronted with the slogan “Stay out of our lives, stay out of our bedroom,” Eva screams right back “As if what happens in our bedroom affects yours.”
While Eva’s right to speak her mind, such brazen transparency can be uncomfortable for a kid who’s still trying to figure out what homosexuality even is, let alone how to deal with the fact that MJ and Eva are planning a civil union ceremony of their own. Does supporting her moms and standing up for what’s right mean she’s sentencing herself to a lifetime of harassment and prejudice?
Gennari is a whiz at maintaining the checks and balances throughout the book by allowing June’s emotions and reactions to ebb and flow, much as they might in life. One minute, she’s lashing out by taking all of her frustrations out on Eva (despite the fact that it’s not Eva’s fault); the next, she’s trying to make things right with her by helping out around the house. Gennari also does an excellent job in portraying all sides of the adult conflict in a manner kids can understand—the neighbors’ fear, Eva’s out-in-the-open-is-best approach, and MJ’s attempts to both stand up for herself and celebrate her love for Eva while also protecting June.
Of course, My Mixed-Up Berry Blue Summer comes highly recommended because it addresses homosexuality and gay marriage in language kids can understand (there aren’t many middle-grade novels out there that do this well). But there’s plenty to this short novel beyond the issues at stake. Side plots involving a pie-making competition and a light flirtation between June and Luke, the boy across the lake, add a sweetness to the story that sensitive readers will latch onto for a breath of fresh air between heavier moments. Gennari peppers the storyline with carefree summertime activities like cliff-jumping, canoeing, and swimming, and the Wild Berry Pie recipe is a welcome bonus at the end. If anyone makes it before I do, let me know how it tastes!
Like most bookworms, Alexis Burling has loved reading since she could crawl. She has worked in the publishing industry for over a decade and has reviewed both children’s and adult books for prominent media outlets such as teenreads.com, Publishers Weekly, and the Washington Post.