After Ainsley’s mom took a cruise director job aboard what is essentially a mockbuster Disney cruise, Ainsley gets to spend all summer onboard with her because she decided against staying with her dad. The recent divorce hit her mom hard and she wants to be there for her mom. Unfortunately, that leads to her mom taking advantage of her as a do-everything girl and leaning on her tween daughter when she should know better.
Kids whose parents have recently split up will recognize a lot of themselves in Ainsley, especially if they feel pressured to be the adult for their parents. It’s never fair to the kid in that situation, but it’s very real and Staniszewski writes it well, making you empathize with Ainsley. After her mom puts her in charge of the ship’s failing teen club and assigns her a million little tasks like watching over the ship’s kids at a towel-folding activity class, you’ll want to shake her mom down.
If you’ve ever been curious about what goes on behind the scenes of a cruise ship’s operations, Once Upon a Cruise will give you that in addition to Ainsley’s coming-of-age story. On this ship in particular, spies are always lurking around to make sure staff members are staying in character and Ainsley is always fighting with Ian, who plays the Pig King in the nightly stage show Fairy Tale Cruises puts on. Naturally, you’re gonna ship them. (A SHIPPING PUN HAD TO BE MADE, OKAY?)
Eventually, Ainsley is able to stand up for herself and say NO. No to her paralyzing stage fright, no to her mother, no to the dwarf she initially has a crush on only to find out he’s a jerk, and no to being walked all over. It takes causing a lot of problems to get there, like messing up the ship photographer’s shots by changing the camera settings and letting the kids she watches over run wild, but it’s so cathartic to see her realize she doesn’t have to be everyone’s Yes Girl.
What Left Me Wanting:
Once Upon a Cruise isn’t a very memorable book, however. Just to write this review, I had to get out my copy and flip back through the pages for basic things like character names and the ship’s name! I was reading this around the time one of my cats passed away and that naturally messed with my memory, but even then, an extraordinary amount of the book’s content fell right out of my head once I finished reading.
Once Upon a Cruise is the kind of book you’ll enjoy this summer, especially if you’re going on a cruise. Though my cat’s passing messed me up for a while, maybe it was fate I was reading such a sweet book during that difficult time. It gave me something happy to escape to when I missed my big old baby Kai and made me yearn for a cruise ship vacation. (Gotta finish the messy process of changing my name and get my new passport, though.)