Book Review: “Ways to Make Sunshine” by Renée Watson

Ways to Make Sunshine (A Ryan Hart Story, 1): Watson, Renée, Mata, Nina:  9781547600564: Books

Book Details:

Year of Publication: 2020

Genre: Realistic Fiction (Middle Grade)

Format (How I Read It): Hardcover

Goodreads Synopsis:

Ryan Hart loves to spend time with her friends, loves to invent recipes, and has a lot on her mind—school, self-image, and family. Her dad finally has a new job, but money is tight. That means changes like selling their second car and moving into a new (old) house. But Ryan is a girl who knows how to make sunshine out of setbacks. Because Ryan is all about trying to see the best. Even when things aren’t all she would wish for—her brother is infuriating, her parents don’t understand, when her recipes don’t turn out right, and when the unexpected occurs—she can find a way forward, with wit and plenty of sunshine.

Book Review

Themes: Family is everything. Be confident in who you are. Embrace your talents. Don’t be afraid of change. True friends will support you and stand by you. Always try your best to live up to your potential. You can make your own happiness when things get hard. Beauty is who you are on the inside and how you treat others.

Character Development: I absolutely love Ryan Hart! She’s like a modern Ramona Quimby. She’s feisty, creative, clever, and isn’t afraid to be herself. This is definitely a character-driven novel, and it’s fun to read about Ryan Hart and how she grows and changes throughout the story. That being said, I would have loved to see the minor characters developed a little bit more. There are certain characters (who could be seen as antagonists) who come up in one chapter, cause some trouble for Ryan, but then never make an appearance again. I also really enjoyed some of the other minor characters like Ryan’s brother and her two best friends, and would like to spend more time with them as well. Luckily, this book is actually the first in a series! I’m sure that we’ll get to know these characters even better throughout the subsequent books, so I’m not too concerned about the lack of character development of the minor characters.

Plot/Pacing: As I said above, this is definitely a character-driven novel. Therefore, the plot can be kind of slow and meandering at times. However, I don’t mean that in a bad way! I actually really enjoy stories that focus more on characters than action. There is an overarching conflict and plotline throughout the book that guides the story, but each chapter could also really stand on its own and provides a window into the daily life and struggles of Ryan Hart. I actually did this one as a read-aloud with my students, and I was a little worried they would get bored listening to it since it is so character-driven (and I normally choose novels with a faster pace for read-alouds). However, they loved it!

Writing Style: I love the writing style of this book. The dialogue is fantastic and really captures the personalities of each character. I also enjoyed that the chapters are short, and there are wonderful illustrations throughout the book that enhance the story.

“Bingeability”: Moderate. With such short chapters, it’s a quick read! However, the plot itself isn’t so exciting that you just can’t put the book down. Which is fine! It’s such a nice and relaxing story that my students and I were always eager to return to.

Emotional Investment: Moderate. You can’t help but root for Ryan Hart! I think feeling more of a connection with the minor characters would have helped even more with the emotional investment in the story, but again, I’m sure we’ll get more of this in future installments in the series.

Windows and Mirrors: Black hair. Gentrification. Portland.

Overall Thoughts: This book is seriously so cute! Ryan Hart is in fourth grade, and I’d say this book is primarily geared toward that age group. I did this as a read-aloud with my sixth graders at the end of this school year because it was short and we didn’t have much time together with the hybrid model. I was a little worried that they would think they were too mature for it, but they didn’t! They really loved it and were always disappointed when we had to stop reading. I also love how the book features a Black family and several other Black characters. It doesn’t shy away from describing skin tones of various characters and how they differ depending on the parents of a certain child, and it also doesn’t shy away from describing the experience of Ryan Hart spending time in an area know for being very “White.” The book is set in Portland, Oregon, so I’m glad it captured this very important and relevant experience. It also describes Black hair and the process of taking care of it and styling it in various ways. These descriptions and this representation was really empowering for my Black students, and created a lot of opportunities for respectful and open conversations during class. It’s a wonderful book!

Recommendation: Having done this book as a read-aloud, I can say that I absolutely recommend it for that! I’d say for grades 3 and up. Also, if you’re a teacher in Oregon, third grade would be the perfect time to do this as a read-aloud to pair with a social studies unit covering Portland history. I would also recommend this for teachers in the Portland area in general since the book is set there, and it’s exciting for students to read about locations that they’ve actually been to and are familiar with! Beyond that, it would be a great novel study for lower level readers. It would also be great as a mentor text for learning about character traits and analyzing how characters change since this book has such strong and well-developed characters. In addition to that, it would be great for learning about theme due to the story having such strong, clear, positive messages. In general, I highly recommend this book!

Thank you for reading my review! Leave a comment letting me know if you’ve read this one or have any questions about it, and keep an eye out for my next review!

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