Sunny Side Up by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm is a magnificent semi-autobiographical graphic novel that can stand next to the works of Raina Telgemeier and Newbery Honor winner, Cece Bell, author of El Deafo. Based on book sales and the check out rate of these titles in my school library, girls and boys are hungry for graphic novels like Smile, Drama and Sisters that tell the stories of real kids facing real challenges. And, while it feels like it's happening at a slow pace and I can count the number of quality autobiographic graphic novels on one hand since Smile came out in 2010, (Roller Girl came out this year, This One Summer, the year before) this genre is gaining popularity and the additions to it are fantastic.
Jennifer L. and Matthew Holm are the sibling team who created the excellent, adventurous, sometimes silly Babymouse and Squish series of graphic novels, but with Sunny Side Up the Holms take on difficult sibling relationships, familial bonds, drug abuse, senior citizens and the bicentennial with a superb clarity and sensitivity. It's August, 1976 and Sunny (short for Sunshine) is getting off a plane in Florida where she will spend the rest of the summer with her grandfather in his retirement community. As Sunny's days at Pine Palms unfold, flashbacks reveal the events that led her to her grandfather's apartment rather than a vacation at the beach with her best friend. I was eight in 1976 and I had a colonial girl costume that I wore, although maybe not as much as Tina Fey. I also have memories of the long, hot days of summer that stretched out ahead of you with a comfortable emptiness and memories of running around with packs of kids and benevolent neglect on the part of the pre-helicopter parents. These are things that the Holms convey in Sunny Side Up, through story and illustrations. Sunny's time with her Gramps is, after some adjustment, deliciously empty. Big plans for Gramps mean a trip to the post office or the grocery store. Not in the same day. One exciting outing has Gramps and friends taking Sunny to Morrison's Cafeteria for the early bird special.
Interspersed with Sunny's summer in Florida, where she meets Buzz, who has a passion for comics - the Swamp Thing becomes their favorite - and a stable, loving family and home life, are flashbacks, scenes with her beloved older brother. Dale, who has a substance abuse problem that makes him fun to be around at first (he takes Sunny to a parking lot where he teaches her to do donuts) and eventually a danger to himself and Sunny, whom he inadvertently hurts. Compared to Florida, Sunny's time in Pennsylvania is dense in action and illustration, and balanced perfectly with her time in Florida.
By the end of Sunny Side Up, Sunny has finally made it to Disneyworld and is returning to a home that somehow feels like it will be a better place. Tactfully, gently, Gramps explains to her that Dale needs all of her parents' attention and that is why she is with him. As she heads home, her treasures from Florida in her arms, it is clear that time with Gramps is just what she needed. Sunny Side Up is perfect and I can't wait to get it into the hands of my students, many of whom have parents and older siblings dealing with the same issues.