My Jasper June by Laurel Snyder, 304 pp, RL 4
My Jasper June by Laurel Snyder
Cover art by Ramona Kaulitzki
Purchased from First Book for my school library
In 2017 I reviewed Snyder's unforgettable Orphan Island, where a green boat emerged once a year from the surrounding mist, bringing one new child, roughly four years old, and departing with the oldest of the nine children, each a year apart in age. In the absence of adults, Orphan Island is an intense window into the world of a child on the cusp of adolescence and all that comes with it. The children learn to take care of themselves, but they also learn the responsibility of taking care of others and the sacrifices that sometimes requires. Main character Jinny, newly the eldest on the island at the beginning of the novel, rebels against her new responsibilities and almost sends the island into chaos before ultimately coming to understand and accept them. The novel ends with Jinny boarding the green boat and heading out into the cold mist, unable to see all that is ahead of her. Snyder's novel left a deep impression on me, a yearning to know what became of Jinny and the implicit understanding (and one of the beauties of a masterful work of art) that the experience is better for me not knowing. And, whether or not it is fair to Snyder's newest novel, I read My Jasper June as a sort of response to Orphan Island, as a glimpse into the world that some children find themselves in when they do make that foggy, vague voyage into adolescence.
As with Orphan Island, adults are absent, at least initially and figuratively, from My Jasper June. Narrated by thirteen-year-old Leah Davidson and starting on the last day of school, she finds herself adrift and headed into a long summer with nothing to do. The accidental drowning death of her younger brother at summer camp the year before has left Leah feeling responsible for Sam's death and unable to connect with a once tight group of friends, friends who have no idea how to talk to her in the wake of this tragedy. Her parents, distracted and uncommunicative and like "ghosts" in the house, realize they haven't signed her up for anything and make motions to do so, then don't. At first, Leah leans into the nothingness of her days but, when she finally gets bored, she wanders out into her Atlanta neighborhood.
When she first meets Jasper, a skinny girl with a cloud of red hair around her face, she is sunning herself on a rock in a creek that runs through a farm where Leah's family used to picnic. Intrigued and lonely, Leah seeks out Jasper again, this time startling her as she is washing her clothes in the creek with dish soap. Leah invites her home to use her washer and dryer and a friendship quickly, if carefully, blooms. Each girl has something unspoken and deeply troubling they are keeping from the other and they navigate around it, knowing it is there, but waiting for the right moment to reveal it. When Jasper finally allows Leah to see where she lives, alone - an abandoned cottage, deep in the kudzu at the edge of the farm where they first met - she believes they have connected because they have both equally suffered, and she tells Jasper the story of her brother's death. Jasper finally reveals that she has been sent to live with her twenty-nine-year-old sister because her mother's alcoholism has left her unable to care for Jasper. After discovering that her sister, mother to two young children, is being physically abused by her husband, Jasper is kicked out of her home for wanting to go to the police. Jasper makes Leah promise not to tell any adult, aware of the life-changing chain of events that will affect her family, and the two begin to work on improvements to Jasper's shelter. Finding they both share a love of stories where magic exists just on the other side of the real world, they name Jasper's "home" the Vine Realm and paint a mural on the wall over her bed - a door that serves as the portal to a magical realm, surrounded by flora and fauna. As her connection to Jasper deepens and her world begins to expand after being so contracted, Leah begins to realize that the tragedy that has shaped the last year of her life is very different from the almost constant chaos and crisis that is Jasper's. A jarring event leads to a climax that has Leah breaking the trust of her friend while also finally finding her voice with her parents, talking about her grief and making room in their lives, room to move beyond the pain of their loss and room to help a person, even if through unconventional means.
In a novel for children where adults are mostly absent, Snyder boldly yet carefully addresses the complications of life that can leave children to raise themselves. She also beautifully, triumphantly brings the resilience and determination of children to the page, much like she did in Orphan Island. While Snyder delivers the ending that I was hoping for from the moment Jasper appeared, it is completely earned through the messy, painful, thoughtless, selfish, intentional and unintentionally hurtful experiences of the child and adult characters in My Jasper June. As someone who works with a large number of students who find themselves missing one or both parents due to addiction, prison, immigration, and/or death, Jasper's situation and her response to it felt authentic. And, as someone who has been in the same position as Leah's parents, I found Snyder's portrayal of their initial responses and reasoning for not helping Jasper were also authentic and painfully real.