Review: Make Lemonade, by Virginia Euwer Wolff (1993)

Make Lemonade coverI still have a handful of books that are on my recommended summer reading list due to general acclaim even though I haven’t read them yet. Sometimes I read one and am embarrassed about putting my stamp of approval on it. But Make Lemonade is staying on the list forever, unless I can get someone to assign it. This book blew me away.

It is a novel in verse, which often seems pretentious to me. Breaking lines at odd places doesn’t make your writing poetry. Wolff’s writing justifies the line breaks, though.

This is a readable, teachable, discussable book about poverty and social justice and ethics. Jolly’s problems are deep: 17 years old with two kids under 3, no high school diploma, a lifetime of no one to trust. LaVaughn can’t solve those problems, nor can government programs — but both play their part. Of course Jolly plays her own part in “taking hold,” as LaVaughn’s mom says: she stops making excuses. It’s a tiny moment, unremarked upon, but LaVaughn recognizes how huge it is.

No one is always right or always wrong in this book, which leaves a lot to talk about. Jolly hears the titular “make lemonade” story from a teacher, and as she retells it it becomes a parable about both making the most of what you have and being righteously angry about what you don’t. That story is a whole day’s worth of classroom discussion right there.

It is also probably the most visceral book I’ve ever read about parenting. As my friends (new parents nearly 20 years older than Jolly) start to have babies, Make Lemonade helped me get it — the juggling, the exhaustion, the “Jilly she’s having herself an afternoon of doing wrong things at the rate of 1 per minute. She turns on the stove knob and then she puts the eggbeater in the toilet and then…” but also the joy of “powdering all her folds” after a bath or teaching Jeremy to pull the stop-request cord on the bus.

There is some possibly controversial content, obviously. This book works for 7th grade and up; it could be a great high-interest/low-reading level title for high school.

Read-alikes: First Part Last by Angela Johnson for teen parenthood; Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson for gorgeous verse; Chanda’s Secrets by Allan Stratton for similar domino-effect social issues, but in South Africa; Help Wanted: Short Stories About Young People Working, ed. by Anita Silvey, for more stories of kids in the working world.

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