As a parent of small children I am, of course, well acquainted with the works of Kevin Henkes. All parents should be. From his simple picture books like Kitten's First Full Moon, to the more complex picture books like Chester's Way and Chrysanthemum, he is a story time favorite around here. Henkes' brilliance springs from his understanding of children. He gets them and the way their minds work and can express it in a form they identify with. I was a little wary of trying his first foray into MG literature (obviously, it has been 8 years since it was published) because I love his picture books so much I couldn't imagine the novel living up to that brilliance. Channeling the thoughts and emotions of young children is one thing, channeling the thoughts and emotions of a 12 year old girl is another entirely. And yet Henkes managed to do it. Frighteningly well actually.
Synopsis (from Goodreads):
Olives' Ocean is a quiet book which is part of its appeal. Martha is a middle child in an average American family. Her problems and struggles are easy to identify with. She is on the border of childhood and teenhood and is conflicted about it as any real girl. She is mad at her family and confused by boys. Henkes manages to convey all of this in a very real way and with no melodrama (except for what exists in Martha's own head because all 12 year old girls have melodrama enacted in their own heads). The descriptions of her feelings are short and to the point but they convey a universal experience none the less:
"Sometimes, when Martha was irritated with her mother, or felt ignored by her, she called her Ms. Hubbard under her breath, rather than Mom. Sometimes, Martha's feelings for her mother bounced between love and hate quickly and without warning, as if her feelings were illogical, willful and completely out of Martha's control."
I also liked this scene between her and her father after she has come back from a walk with a boy (who held her hand) for the first time:
"For what seemed like a long time, they simply stood, facing the endless black ocean. After a deafeningly quiet moment (despite the roar of the waves), Martha said, 'I'm tired', because she thought she should say something...'You look it.' 'Let's go home.' 'Good idea,' said her father. They started off. 'You know,' he said, 'when you were little and tired like this, I'd throw you over my shoulder and carry you home like a sack of rice. Sometimes I wish you were still that little. I wish I could still do that.;' 'Da-ad. That is so embarrassing,' is what she said. But sometimes she wished it too. Sometimes she wished it with all her heart."
The emotion conveyed with such simplicity is lovely and the whole book is like that.
I also very much liked what Henkes did with the story of Olive. Olive was a classmate of Martha's who died weeks before the beginning of the novel. Henkes demonstrated the emotions that a young person goes through when they experience tragedy in a peripheral way. Martha sees her own mortality brought to light for the first time and dealing with that and the thought of Olive dying becomes the same thing for her. It is exactly how an empathetic 12 year old would deal with such a tragedy.
I was definitely impressed and will now be getting Henkes' newest novel Junonia to read.
Note for Concerned Parents: There is one scene where Olive's parents are kissing and her brother comments that they are exhibiting "morning sex behavior". This might raise questions in younger advanced readers so be warned that it is there.