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BOOK REVIEWS, Family, Loss, LOVELACE nominee 2020, Middle Grade Readers, Realistic Fiction

LEMONS by Melissa Savage…2020 LOVELACE nominee Division I

Lemons is another title I probably would never have picked up if it hadn’t shown up on the Lovelace nominee list this year.  After having read it, I find I am slightly conflicted in my opinion of it.  I love discovering new (to me) Minnesota authors and I wanted to love this book all the way through.  But I didn’t.  I felt the book was much stronger for the first three-quarters than the ending.  The story arc felt to me as if it should have (could have?) ended on page 223. However, the story continued until page 308.

Lemons is the story of 11-year-old Lemonade Liberty Witts. (Yes, the character name is gimmicky and is mostly a distraction from the story but doesn’t rise to the level of being totally off-putting.) Her mother has died of cancer and she is being sent from the home she knows in San Francisco, to live with her maternal grandfather (Charlie) in Willow Creek, California. Lemonade has never met her grandfather and has no intention of staying in Willow Creek. Once there, she meets Tobin Sky, the 11-year-old who lives across the street and has started his own Bigfoot Detective Agency. Trying hard to live up to her name (being able to make something good out of something unpleasant: when life gives you lemons, make lemonade) Lemonade joins Tobin in his Bigfoot expeditions.

The Bigfoot search functions well as the basis on which the story moves forward.  It allows the reader to witness the development of Lemonade’s relationship with both Charlie and Tobin.  The real brilliance of this story–for me–is the way Lemonade is able to speak about her emotions surrounding the grief, loss and abandonment that threaten to overwhelm her after her mother’s death. Slowly, she is able to share those with people around her who have also experienced loss at a deep level:

“You know what it feels like sometimes?” I ask. “Kind of like I have to carry something that’s way too heavy, and I can’t find any place to set it down. And it makes my whole body ache.”

Lemonade’s voice is achingly raw and honest when she speaks about her grief and the anger she has about losing her mother. The author does not shy away from letting Lemonade experience the desperate sadness that so often accompanies a loss of the magnitude she has suffered:

But tonight I’m not even scared, because tonight I’m hoping that one of those strikes of lightning finds its way to earth and zaps me into dust. Then I won’t ever have to think of anything again….Then maybe I’ll be free from the quicksand waiting to suck me in and never let me breathe again. Free of the load that is just too heavy for me to carry.

Lemonade is surrounded by kind adult characters who allow her the freedom to acknowledge those emotions, sit with her as she flounders in their midst and offer support in the form of a steadying hand:

I look up at him and he gives me another big squeeze.  And it feels like I’m being pulled from the quicksand. His face tells me he’s been there the whole time, making sure I didn’t sink too deep, waiting for me to figure a way out on my own. But when I slipped farther…he gave me his hand.

Lemonade’s experiences clearly model a path through grief in a loving, constructive way.  The images of quicksand and volcanoes perfectly communicate the overwhelming intensity of her emotions.

For me, Lemonade’s story felt resolved before the end of the book and I was comfortable with the way in which the Bigfoot plotline had resolved at that point. I do, however, completely understand why the author continued the story after what felt like a natural conclusion to me. The ending felt more in service to the structure of the story than the actual story, itself.  But I can see where some readers might need it to continue as far as the author ended up taking it.

Because the final 80 pages or so felt extraneous to me it unfortunately colored my feeling about the book as a whole. I compare it to seeing a great show at the theatre and then the finale kind of falls flat.  It ruins your feeling about the whole show–even if you enjoyed everything up to that point.  So Lemons was a 3 out of 5 stars read for me but I would be interested to see Melissa Savage’s other work for middle grade readers.


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