Sunny Side Up, a new graphic novel by sister-brother team Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm, reminded me very much of Raina Telgemeier’s much-lauded graphic novels for middle-grade and teen readers. It’s not just the realistic, colorful artwork that reminded me of such hits as Smile and Sisters but also the way the Holms mix some serious topics with a good sense of humor and tell the story from a kid’s perspective. Like Raina’s best graphic novels, Sunny Side Up is also semi-autobiographical, inspired by the siblings’ own childhoods.
Ten-year old Sunny Lewin flies to Florida by herself to visit her grandfather, affectionately known as Gramps, for the summer. Though Sunny and Gramps are clearly glad to see each other, there are hints that Sunny isn’t 100% happy to be there for the whole summer. Gradually, bit by bit, with the story moving back and forth from the present (August 1976) to scenes at Sunny’s home in Pennsylvania a few months earlier, the reader begins to see glimpses of some problems back home.
Although Sunny is glad to see her beloved Gramps, she’s not thrilled about staying with him for so long. He lives in a retirement community, so she is surrounded by old people, with little to do and no one to play with (not to mention sleeping in a creaky, uncomfortable sofa bed). Things improve somewhat when Sunny meets Buzz, a boy her own age whose dad works in the community as a groundskeeper. Buzz introduces Sunny to superhero comic books, and the two bond over candy, comics, and their adventures in the retirement community.
With Buzz around, Sunny enjoys her stay more, but it is clear that she is still upset over things at home, as flashbacks show how she is rehashing events of the previous few months with her mother, father, and older brother. Sunny’s been keeping secrets for someone, though she doesn’t really understand what’s going on in the bigger picture. As a result, she gets more and more upset with the strain of being left out and keeping secrets.
Sunny Side Up is an enjoyable, fun journey about one girl’s visit with her grandfather in 1970’s Florida, but it is also about more serious topics, too. The authors/illustrators weave into the story how the problems that one family member faces can affect others in the family, especially kids who may not understand what is happening. The relationship between Sunny and Gramps is wonderful (though realistic and not always smooth); it is clear they have a special bond. The growing friendship between Sunny and Buzz is also beautifully depicted. And the novel ends on a note of hope, as Sunny returns home with a better understanding of her family’s challenges (thanks to Gramps) and relief at not having to keep secrets anymore. All in all, it is a moving and realistic yet fun story about some of the more difficult experiences of being a kid.