Friday, April 12, 2013

Just Juice, by Karen Hesse

Title:  Just Juice
Author:  Karen Hesse
Publisher:  Scholastic
Year:  1999
Pages:  144
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes:  Poverty, Overcoming Hardship, Perseverance, Literacy, Disability
Age Range:  3rd-5th Grade

Juice Faulstitch doesn't like school.  Letter and numbers just don't make sense to her.  She'd rather skip school and spend the day walking around the North Carolina countryside with her out-of-work father any day.  Her two oldest sisters are in school, her two younger sisters are at home with their mother, and with mom pregnant with baby number six, she doesn't have time to energy to force Juice to school.  Her family is poor, poorer than anyone they know.  Her father is an out of work miner, and the family gets by on government assistance.  Their house was left to them by a relative, but they haven't been able to pay the taxes.  Now the county says they are selling the house for taxes, and Juice and her father have to come up with a plan to save their family.

There is a lot jammed into this very short book.  I almost listed historical fiction as the genre, until I realized that everything described in the book-the unemployment, the poverty, the illiteracy, the lack of medical care-are circumstances that are still all too common in the Appalachian region of the country, which is presumably where this family is from.  Juice clearly has a learning disability, but is afraid to let her teacher give her the tests that could identify it and help her learn.  Her father, it turns out, is also illiterate, which is what keeps the family from dealing with the tax mess before it was too late.  Juice's mother does what she can to help the family get by, making craft items to sell in a shop in town, but with five children to look after-plus one on the way-and a husband with depression, which the father certainly has, she has about all she can handle.  Their remote location and lack of reliable transportation make it difficult for her to get medical care, and if not for a visiting nurse she would likely have died of gestational diabetes.  Juice and her family have seen a lot of the downside of life.

But despite all of their challenges, there is great love obvious in the family.  The girls all care for each other, and try to help Juice learn enough to "catch up" with school.  Their father obviously feels incredibly guilty about his inability to make a living to support them adequately, and Juice lives to take him out of his head and be as big a help to him as she can.  Mother and Father are clearly in love, and neither wants to burden the other with more stress or bad news.  But if there is one thing that is clear from the story, it is the importance of communication-including and especially the written kind.  The problem of illiteracy was the largest stumbling block for the family, affecting every other part of their lives.  Reading this book is likely to make most children more grateful for the blessings they have, but Juice's character is not someone to be pitied.  She is smart and resourceful, and despite her many challenges she as a strength of spirit that is admirable regardless of a person's circumstances.

Teacher Resources:
Scholastic Discussion Guide
Literature Circles Guide

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