Kevin Henkes.  Junonia.  New York:  Greenwillow – HarperCollins, 2011.  176 pages.

Alice Rice has spent every birthday she can remember on Sanibel Island.  Leaving snowy Wisconsin behind, she and her parents take refuge in Florida, where Alice can continue her search for rare shells.  Maybe this year she’ll find the best shell of all, the elusive junonia.  After all, this year will mark her tenth birthday, the most special one yet.  But the changes Alice finds on Sanibel aren’t the good ones she expected. 


What worked

Plot:  The main conflicts – Alice’s search for a junonia and her attempt to figure out why six-year-old Mallory is so unhappy – were compelling enough once I could tell where the story was going.  The overall theme of expectations vs. reality, and learning to accept when your plans don’t go “perfectly,” felt very true to a ten-year-old’s experience.

Characters:  Alice’s joys and disappointments, her insecurities and embarrassments, and even her selfish moments, gave me flashbacks to my own ten-year-old experiences.

Six-year-old Mallory was also very convincing for her age (there was only one passage in which her speech seemed too mature and message-y).  I can imagine a real six-year-old deflecting her own feelings onto a doll or imaginary friend (“Munchkey’s not happy.”) or not understanding the concept of a permanent marker.

What didn’t

Plot:  On the first read-through, the story’s pace felt too slow.  The only conflict I could sense in the first few chapters wasn’t interesting enough to make me want to keep reading.

Even afterwards, the story kept digressing unnecessarily into Alice’s musings about life, or other moments that slowed the plot.  One passage focused on Alice’s sleepiness after a trip to the grocery store, and how her parents helped her get dressed for bed.  That may be a realistic portrayal of a ten-year-old’s daily life, but it does nothing to move the story forward.  It wasn’t until chapter 11, halfway through the story, that I felt the pace really pick up.

Some of Alice’s thoughts on life made more sense on the second read-through – I could understand their relevance to later events or to the overall theme – but I still don’t think I would have missed those passages if they were omitted.  The only one I really liked, and which fit perfectly with the story, was a paragraph that described Alice’s personal, unconventional image of God.


Once the pace picked up, the story was much more enjoyable and the conflicts were more compelling.  The characters were very relatable, and the resolution was both satisfying and realistic.  I also appreciated the brief Florida seashell guide Henkes included in the pages before the story.

Similar books:

Each title links to a review.

Keeper, by Kathi Appelt

Olive’s Ocean, by Kevin Henkes (the reviewer is kind enough to warn of spoilers, but the only one I saw was very mild)

Seal Child, by Sylvia Peck (see the first review, by Maggie.  The SLJ and PW reviews contain major SPOILERS.)

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