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Black History Reads: Ways to Make Sunshine (2020)

Given our focus this month on stories highlighting the Black experience, we feel that we have been remiss in turning the spotlight only on novels with male protagonists. We aim to change that: this week we are highlighting Ways to Make Sunshine (2020) by Renée Watson. In this blog post, we want to introduce you to a feisty, precocious Black girl who is trying to navigate the challenges and changes coming her way, and the ways in which she works to find the bright side in every situation.

Fourth grader Ryan Hart keeps being teased about the fact that she has a boy’s name instead of a “normal” girl’s name. It bothers her, but her family assures her that her name means “king” and reflects that she’s meant to be a leader as she gets older. If that was her only problem, she would be fine. However, Ryan has a lot on her plate: since money is tight, her parents had to sell the comfortable house that she knows and move into a new (old) house that’s too small for her family. Her dad has finally found a new job, but it’s a night shift job so he won’t be drive her and her brother Raymond to school anymore as he needs to sleep during the day. Finally, she has no idea what special talent she could show off for the upcoming fourth grade talent show, one where she doesn’t freeze onstage and cause everybody to laugh at her. Despite all these issues, Ryan finds a way to move forward and shows how she can make sunshine for herself and the people around her.

This book feels very similar to the Ramona Quimby series, written by Beverly Clearly, since the reader is shown the inner thoughts and feelings of the main character. This book would be described as a slice-of-life novel, given the fact it is set in the present. We also see the world through Ryan’s eyes, which makes her problems more real, immediate, and believable. We empathize with Ryan not always getting along with her brother or missing her friends that she no longer gets a chance to see.

It’s also to the author’s credit that the adults in Ryan’s life do not try to push away or ignore her problems, but to help her work through her problems to the best of their ability. Another enjoyable aspect of the book is the occasional but lovingly drawn illustrations by Nina Mata, which highlight various moments in the narrative that really bring Ryan’s world to life for the reader. If you or your child want to read by turns sweet but sometimes somber book about the challenges of growing up (in addition to added challenges of growing up as a person of color in the United States), then this would be a good book to read to start facilitating those sorts of thoughtful conversations.

Figure 1: Cover for the middle-grade novel Ways to Make Sunshine (2020).

Renee Watson is an African American author who grew up in Portland, Oregon (where this novel is set), but now resides in New York. She has received a Newbery Honor medal as well as a Coretta Scott King Award for her young adult novel, “Piecing Me Together” (2017). There is also a sequel detailing the further adventures, Ways to Grow Love (which you can find at Aurora Public Library). We also have another book from the same author on the way titled Love is a Revolution (2022).

Please check out some of Renée Watson’s work from the library and let us know what you think!

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