It’s the summer of 1955. For Ethan Harper, a biracial kid raised mostly by his white father, race has always been a distant conversation. When he’s sent to spend the summer with his aunt and uncle in small-town Alabama, his blackness is suddenly front and center, and no one is shy about making it known he’s not welcome there. Enter Juniper Jones. The town’s resident oddball and free spirit, she’s everything the townspeople aren’t―open, kind, and accepting. Armed with two bikes and an unlimited supply of root beer floats, Ethan and Juniper set out to find their place in a town that’s bent on rejecting them. As Ethan is confronted for the first time by what it means to be black in America, Juniper tries to help him see the beauty in even the ugliest reality, and that even the darkest days can give rise to an invincible summer . . .
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Ellison is gripped by outright racism and the Ku Klux Klan. The townspeople take no time at all to make sure Ethan knows that he is not welcome there, resorting to outright threats. His aunt and uncle are also wary of him and they say terrible things to keep up appearances. We view these things through Ethan's eyes, making it clear the harmful effects silence or going with the flow can have.
However, Juniper Jones, a fiery young girl Ethan's age, decides that Ethan is going to be her best friend and that together, they will have the best summer ever. He soon gets swept away in her plans and adventures, all the while dealing with the town and its racist occupants.
What I love: The book really sweeps you away in the story, and we feel Ethan's conflicts and pains throughout the book. It also shows the problems with colorblindness that lead to his father sending him to such a dangerous place and not speaking about race at home. Microaggressions as well as outright racism and hate crimes are pervasive throughout the novel, and the focus on Ethan's experience shines a light on all these issues that are still occurring today. Through his eyes, we also see the things that Ethan notices, which the white residents may ignore (as his father likely did), such as the confederate flag hanging in the center of town. The book also shows the power of having a vocal ally, and the need for those people to also speak up.
The ending surprised me, but I appreciated the surprise (even if I cried). This was a really heart-wrenching story, and books which can make you feel so deeply are always a treasure. This was a true coming-of-age story, and we can see the ways in which it would shape Ethan's life (in the last chapter when we flash forward to 2015).
What left me wanting more: As a small point, I am somewhat surprised that Ethan and his father were unaware of the racial tensions in the South before he arrived (and that Washington was so much better that racism was not much of a problem they were aware of), but this may be time accurate as knowledge was more difficult to transfer (without internet and much TV).
Final verdict: Heart-breaking and well written, THE INVINCIBLE SUMMER OF JUNIPER JONES is a YA historical fiction about racism, friendship, and the events that are indelibly printed on our souls.