Is Ryan Hart a Ramona Quimby for the 2020’s? WAYS TO MAKE SUNSHINE enters the Mock Newbery discussion
Portland 4th grader Ryan Hart navigates family, friends, and school with irrepressible spirit in Renee Watson’s middle grade novel. Guest blogger Abbie Digel introduces WAYS TO MAKE SUNSHINE:
It’s easy to read over the basic terms for the Newbery and dive into the detailed criteria for the award. It’s fun to get into the nitty gritty. But WAYS TO MAKE SUNSHINE got me thinking about that very first sentence, the one that says “the medal shall be awarded to the most distinguished contribution to American literature.” I can’t think of anything more important for all young readers in America today than to give them stories that include diverse perspectives and children of color going about their daily lives, facing universal problems experienced by every child in America. Renee Watson has written a warm, approachable book starring a black protagonist that delves into some tough stuff while also gracing us with poignant and authentic themes. She shares wonderful small moments that are significant for protagonist Ryan Hart and also provide both windows and mirrors for young readers.
While I don’t feel as though Watson has presented us with a storyline or plot that is anything particularly new, it’s Ryan Hart and her bond with her family, friends, school, and city that I fell in love with. The publisher’s description and the many reviews of the book were accurate in their comparison to Beverly Cleary’s RAMONA books. I also immediately thought of FROM THE DESK OF ZOE WASHINGTON when we learn that Ryan loves to cook. But what makes WAYS truly stand out is how Watson gently and thoughtfully weaves Ryan’s struggles with identity, race, and class differences among her friends throughout the arc of Ryan’s 4th grade year.
The strongest example of this for me was when Ryan’s Grandmother spends hours one Saturday straightening Ryan’s hair in preparation for her big Easter speech. All week following the Easter service and a heartwarming gathering at Ryan’s family’s new and smaller rental home, Ryan tries her best to keep her hair out of the Portland rain and ties it up when she showers. When she attends a pool party at her best friend’s house, which is “wider and taller and everything looks better than what I have at my house,” she wonders if she “will be the only brown girl” and if the other girls “will think I am weird for not getting in the pool.” (p 79) I could feel the tension during this chapter as Ryan sat on the edge of the pool, watching the other girls play games until she finally jumped in to prove her loyalty to the birthday girl, at the expense of ruining her straight, silky hair. It’s a beautiful moment, where we really get a sense of the confident and sunny character Ryan is.
Ryan is constantly grappling with the meaning of her name, a point her parents stress to her almost daily. How can she be a “king” or a “leader” when she’s teased for the choices she must make, choices that some of her friends don’t have empathy for or don’t understand? The pool party chapter ends with Ryan coming to terms with the way her natural hair looks:
I don’t know what kind of trouble I’ll be in when Mom finds out what happened and I feel bad that Grandma wasted her time… I walk out of the bathroom with my best friend and my natural hair and I try to be the beautiful person Grandma says I am. (p 89)
I cannot talk about this book without also mentioning how Watson writes with a strong sense of nostalgia and setting; while never having been to Portland myself, I could smell the smells of fried dough at the Saturday Marketplace, feel the insistent rain on my skin, sense the excitement for Rose Festival Month. Watson’s detailed descriptions of Portland helps ground Ryan and gives her a strong sense of place, both within her family and the world that surrounds her.
Through Ryan Hart, Watson has created a world for young readers that feels both fresh and familiar. Whether it’s learning that failure is okay sometimes, living up to your parent’s expectations, or being true to your identity, Watson’s writing is on target with the Newbery criteria of “respect for children’s understandings, abilities, and appreciations.” While this book probably won’t appeal to older readers, I am confident that we can all see parts of ourselves in Ryan as she navigates through her world.
Abbie Digel is the Lower School Librarian at an independent school in Denver, CO. When she is not reading or adding books to her TBR list, she is hiking, skiing, or camping with her partner and dog. Abbie graduated with MLIS in School Media from the Syracuse University School of Information Studies. Previously, she worked as a publicist for two independent book publishers in Chicago. You can follow what she’s reading on Instagram @ms_d_reads.
About Steven Engelfried
Steven Engelfried was the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon until he retired in 2022 after 35 years as a full-time librarian. He served on the 2010 Newbery committee, chaired the 2013 Newbery Committee, and also served on the 2002 Caldecott committee. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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