We're excited to spotlight the New York Times bestselling, triple Newbery Honor winning, overall kid lit superstar author Jennifer Holm's wonderful "SUNNY" graphic novel series -- in which the addiction and mental health of a troubled sibling is handled with a deft and balanced touch for middle schoolers. Sally Pla was lucky enough to ask Jennifer Holm a few questions about SUNNY. Here's the exchange.
Sally: In the SUNNY books, the characters feel so real, you can practically smell the chlorine at the 1970s-era community pool and the hamburger casserole at home! I love this! I was a young teen in that era, and have such a soft spot for the nostalgic details you evoke! Okay, enough fangirling; my first question is for readers who may be unfamiliar. Who is Sunny, and what are some of the issues she is dealing with in this series?
Jenni: Awww, thank you for your kind words! I loved growing up in the 1970s. Kids had a lot more independence back then.
Sunny is an eleven-year-old girl living in suburban Pennsylvania with her parents and two brothers (one younger, one older). The series begins in 1976—the year of the famous Bicentennial. Sunny has to deal with typical middle school concerns, like fitting in and making friends and boys. The first book takes place in Florida. Sunny has been sent by her parents to spend the summer with her gramps in an over-55 retirement community to get her away from the chaos of her home life.
Sally: Sunny's older brother Dale struggles with addiction and mental health issues. In a book that pops with bright colors, Dale is mostly drawn in darker colors, blacks and grays -- and you can feel that Sunny herself feels a bit somber in thinking about her brother. What does Dale represent to Sunny - what does he evoke in her - and what is his role in the stories?
Jenni: Throughout the books, Sunny’s concern for Dale sort of percolates under the surface. I think that Sunny is simultaneously worried about Dale and a bit scared of him. The brother that she loves has morphed into someone who is cold and unpredictable. She desperately tries to keep the peace between him and their parents as his behavior spirals out of control.
Sally: In SUNNY SIDE UP, secrets are bothering Sunny, until ultimately she confronts Gramps about his secret smoking, and opens up about Dale, too. Why was it important to you that Sunny have this arc in the story -- an arc towards honesty and shedding sunlight on the difficult topics? And you treat it with a perfect, appropriate touch - light, but not too light... Was that hard to achieve?
Jenni: The balance was keeping the notion of talking about issues at the forefront—not the specific issue per se. I didn’t want to get into the weeds regarding drug/alcohol abuse. That would have been a different book.
Sally: Sunny loves comics and wishes she had a "secret strength" like Hulk, Spidey, etc. But if you had to name it, what IS her secret strength?
Jenni: Sunny’s secret strength is her optimism. She wants the people she loves to turn out okay.
Sally: Why is it important that kids' books not shy away from mental health and addiction topics?
Jenni: Growing up in the 1970s, we didn’t really talk about mental health or substance abuse issues. In fact, I remember quite clearly the notion of not “airing dirty laundry.” It was seen as very negative and embarrassing. As a result, a lot of worry was bottled up. It’s important – vital even – for children to be able to talk about complicated issues. They’re living through them so they need the tools to help them cope.
Books are a good tool for exploring these concerns.
Jennifer L. Holm is a NEW YORK TIMES-bestselling children's author and the recipient of three Newbery Honors for her novels OUR ONLY MAY AMELIA, PENNY FROM HEAVEN, and TURTLE IN PARADISE. Jennifer collaborates with her brother, Matthew Holm, on several graphic novel series including the the Eisner Award-winning Babymouse series, the bestselling Sunny series, and the Squish series which is now a streaming show on HBO MAX. Her new novel is THE LION OF MARS. She lives in California with her husband, two children, and two bossy cats names Augustus and Livvie (after the Roman Emperor and Empress.)