The title of Renée Watson’s new book is enough to brighten anyone’s day. “Ways to Make Sunshine” is the first book in a young middle grade series.
The book is set in Portland, where Watson grew up. She liberally sprinkles the story with the places and things she loved, from her old church and elementary school, to the Helen Bernhard Bakery on Broadway, to the Rose Festival.
But life is not all sunshine, flowers and cake for the novel’s young heroine, Ryan Hart. Her family is facing some big changes.
Not all of them are bad. For instance, her dad found a new job after getting laid off from his old one. But the new job has him working the night shift so he’s asleep during the day when everybody else is awake.
The family will be getting rid of their second car because her dad’s new job doesn’t pay as much as his old one did.
And the family’s landlord is selling their house, forcing them to move to a different and smaller house.
Ryan has a big brother, Raymond. He’s fun to be with sometimes and at other times is a thorn in her side.
She has two good friends. Kiki lives close by and Amanda just moved to Lake Oswego which, Ryan’s dad says, “is too far and too white.” Ryan’s parents are both black, as are Kiki’s, but Amanda has a white mom and a black dad.
Chapters contain a series of episodes that ring true for the age group. Ryan has to contend with the friends of friends, for example. Or she gets teased for her name. Or she forgets a memorized piece in front of a crowd.
There’s another incident when she jumps into the pool at a swim party at Amanda’s new house in Lake Oswego. When her straightened hair goes back to its naturally “boingy” state, some of Amanda’s new friends have never seen black hair do this before.
“Your hair looks like it got electrocuted!” one girl says.
A mystery is introduced in an early chapter. In the closet of her new bedroom, Ryan discovers a canister with some long-forgotten keepsakes in it. Although we return to this mystery in later chapters, the resolution is only a conjecture, not a done deal. This may not be enough to satisfy some readers.
Overall, this is a sweet-natured story that doesn’t focus heavily on dramatic, life-changing events, but acknowledges their existence on the periphery of a young girl’s experience. As Ryan putters through school and play dates and skirmishes with her brother, she picks up cues along the way about the importance of resilience, optimism and loyalty.
Charming illustrations by Nina Mata complement the book.