Jelly Bean Summer by Joyce Magnin is a heartfelt, historical middle grade novel about the struggle to find home and belonging in emotionally challenging times. The book’s young protagonist – named for the author, hinting at autobiographical inspirations – moves onto her roof and then contemplates running away to Arizona as tension boils in her home after her brother goes missing in Vietnam. This theme of dislocation prevails throughout the the novel as Joyce searches for belonging: sharing a room with her guinea pig and UFO-obsessed older sister, struggling to connect the stars in the night sky from her tent on the roof, and with her west-bound friend, Brian, who will soon leave for his new home in Arizona. Ultimately, Joyce must learn that she has to “live with” the pain and loss within her family, whether “here or in Arizona.” She discovers that the home she’s looking for isn’t one she needs to find, but one she already has that needs a little bit of time and healing to feel right again.
The novel balances emotion and subtlety. While the characters emote openly (such as “crying buckets of tears” when Elaine’s guinea pig, Jelly Bean, died) the details around Bud’s disappearance are gradually unveiled throughout the narrative. There is no major exposition or gratuitous display of painful emotion in his absence. Instead, many emotional scenes are deflective. Joyce says her mom “ignores things” because “adding any more upset-ness into the air could ignite the whole house on fire.” Her father hides in the basement, working on a secret project. And when Joyce craves her sister to forgive her for having a role in Jelly Bean’s death, it’s evident that the words she longs to hear – “it’s OK” – are just as much about her missing brother as they are the deceased pet.
While Jelly Bean Summer doesn’t offer a sugar-coated happy ending, its final pages ring with hope. Joyce’s family is reunited, even if their dynamic is a bit damaged and not quite as it was before the war. Brian drives to his new home in Arizona and though his father will not move with him, he joins for the ride. Joyce cannot fill the void loss leaves in her heart; even when she buys her sister an adorable new kitten, she realizes nothing can undo the accident with Jelly Bean. But when Elaine finally assures her “it’s OK,” Joyce decides that’s “good enough.” She can “live with ‘it’s OK'” because no matter what she goes through, Joyce will find a way to remain put and simply live.