By: Hannah Rapp, Teen Librarian
I’ve been on a kick this summer of reading (big surprise) summery books! This season has been full of flip-flops, beaches, water, and lazy days for me – at least when I’m reading! This latest What I Just Read was definitely a highlight of all that seasonal reading.
What I Just Read: Honey Girl by Lisa Freeman
What’s It About (Jacket Description): How to survive California’s hottest surf spot: Never go anywhere without a bathing suit. Never cut your hair. Never let them see you panic.
The year is 1972. Fifteen-year-old Haunani “Nani” Grace Nuuhiwa is transplanted from her home in Hawaii to Santa Monica, California after her father’s fatal heart attack. Now the proverbial fish-out-of-water, Nani struggles to adjust to her new life with her alcoholic white (haole) mother and the lineup of mean girls who rule State Beach.
Following “The Rules”—an unspoken list of dos and don’ts—Nani makes contact with Rox, the leader of the lineup. Through a harrowing series of initiations, Nani not only gets accepted into the lineup, she gains the attention of surf god, Nigel McBride. But maintaining stardom is harder than achieving it. Nani is keeping several secrets that, if revealed, could ruin everything she’s worked so hard to achieve. Secret #1: She’s stolen her dad’s ashes and hidden them from her mom. Secret #2: In order to get in with Rox and her crew, she spied on them and now knows far more than they could ever let her get away with. And most deadly of all, Secret #3: She likes girls, and may very well be in love with Rox.
Did I Like It: It was the perfect summer read. Do I need to say more?
Thoughts: There’s so much to unpack in Honey Girl, which is impressive for a relatively quick and beachy read. First of all, I really got into the historical fiction aspect. I’ve never known much about the 70s, beyond watching That 70s Show, and not surprisingly, surfer culture in southern California was definitely different than the small-town Midwest culture portrayed on that show. I didn’t have to believe in astrology to be interested in how Nani embraced it, I didn’t need to own a mis-matched crochet bikini to picture how perfectly 70s it was, and I certainly didn’t need to know how to surf to become completely immersed in the culture portrayed. Because it really was a whole culture – the rules, the hierarchies, the divisions. Reading about the beach culture Nani lives in was almost like reading a fantasy or sci-fi novel, because it was such a completely different world than any that I’ve lived in. The novel is semi-autobiographical, so I believe most of the vivid cultural details. And this surf/beach culture was so much fun to read about that I hardly would have cared if parts of the book weren’t quite accurate.
Another thing that really stood out to me about Honey Girl was how different and refreshing it was to see a sympathetic protagonist who was unabashedly interested in being popular. So often in the books I’ve read, the popular group are portrayed as bad, and the people who want to be popular as misguided or desperate. Freeman certainly didn’t shy away from showing the ugly sides of the popular and competitive world that Nani is entering. But she also showed the good sides of the popular teens, and didn’t seem to be judging Nani for her desire to be part of their group, and to be popular. Her desire to be part of the ruling clique didn’t make her bad, although it sometimes made her behave badly, and it was easy to empathize with Nani’s goals. Despite, or perhaps because of, the personal struggles and grief Nani was dealing with, her interactions with “the lineup” of popular girls and with surf culture in general still seemed important and worthwhile to read about. To me, that really demonstrates Freeman’s ability as a writer, and the incredible, believable complexity and depth of Nani as a character.
Honey Girl was the ideal summer read for me – high enough stakes and serious enough issues to make it engrossing to read, but with a lightness as well, and a beach setting so well described that I could practically feel the sun, sand, and ocean. It’s not necessarily the best or even my favorite book that I read this summer, but of all the books I’ve binged on lately, I think Honey Girl is the one I’m most likely to pick up again another summer. I highly recommend grabbing it while the sun is still out (or in a few months when you need to pretend it is!)