Ways to Make Sunshine by Renée Watson, illustrated by Nina Mata, 192 pp, RL 4


Ways to Make Sunshine
illustrated by Nina Mata
Purchased at Barnes & Noble
There is so much to love about Ways to Make Sunshine, I don't even know where to start! Watson grew up in NE Portland, OR, and this is the third book of hers I have read that is set there. As she says in her acknowledgements, "The best part of writing this novel was remembering, then going back to the places in Portland that raised me." Having lived in NE Portland while I was in college, I definitely enjoyed being taken down memory lane by Watson, past the Fred Meyer and the Safeway to the Saturday Market and OMSI and can't wait to read the next book in what I hope is a long series.

With Ways to Make Sunshine, Watson does something that deeply impresses me the rare times I encounter it: she writes about authentic, if somewhat ordinary, childhood experiences in a way that imbues them with importance and meaning through the winning personality of her narrator. You can see Ryan grow and learn from the first to the last chapter of this book that starts in the rainy season around Easter and ends with the last day of fourth grade and sunny skies. In the first pages of the novel, Ryan tells readers, "Ryan means 'king' and that means I'm a leader." And, throughout the novel, Ryan's parents remind her in difficult moments, whether she is faced with not getting to do something she wants to do or having to return to the scene of an embarrassing moment, "Be who you were named to be." While Ryan makes typical "good-kid-bad-choices," the presence, respect and support her parents guides and nurtures her.

In the first pages, Ryan learns that her family is moving to a "new (old) house" that is smaller and her father, who lost his job as a mailman, is selling his car. Grocery shopping means more generic brands (Ryan has to give up her beloved - and extremely Oregonian - Tillamook Marionberry Pie) and she doesn't have as much money for treats when she goes to the Saturday Market to help her mom sell her knitting. She may express disappointment and frustration at times, but Ryan is also someone who is a doer. My favorite part of the book (and where the title comes from) comes when a rainstorm prevents the Harts from their annual  trek to the Grand Floral Parade during Rose Festival Month. Stuck inside with her friend Amanda and Amanda's little sister, Ryan organizes her own parade. She even has her friends cut out construction paper suns to hang on the walls because you can't have a parade in the gloomy dark.

Watson fills her novel with many little details that enrich the story and make the characters more vividly real. Ryan loves to cook and try new recipes, and on Saturdays she and her mother take their cans to be recycled at the Safeway grocery store where, afterward, Ryan gets to spend the money they earned on spices and other ingredients for the recipes she has found. When Ryan discovers a cookie tin in the closet of her "new(old) house," the contents are fuel for her imagination and she even makes a connection with a vendor at the Saturday Market because of it. Watson ends Ways to Make Sunshine the way she started it - with ice cream and changes for the Hart family. I don't want to give away any surprises, but I can tell you that Ryan greets this change the same way she does throughout the book - with a wariness that, after thoughtful reflection, has her embracing what's ahead.

Coming in April, 2021!
More by Renée Watson

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