Evan Griffith’s Manatee Summer is sure to cement itself as a beloved childhood favorite in the hearts of young readers. It’ll be a book they look back on fondly, the one that kindled their love of manatees, that captured the essence of the first taste of real responsibility while shining a light on that tender space between elementary school and middle school.
Peter and Tommy have been best friends for three years, which is a long time when you’ve only just finished fifth grade. They’ve never gone to the same school and they’re as different as can be, but they fit together perfectly. They bonded over their love of animals, and have been steadily working on filling their Discovery journal with sketches and facts about all the animals they’ve discovered in the wild together. Their goal is to finish the journal with their 100th discovery this summer, their final summer before middle school. But Peter is also on Official Caretaker duty this summer, caring for his grandfather as Alzheimer’s slowly takes hold. But Peter doesn’t want Tommy to know this. And Tommy is acting a little funny, too. But their 95th discovery, a manatee in the canal in their neighborhood, leads them down a new path– especially when the manatee gets injured.
The setting is especially important here, as Peter and Tommy have been able to discover scores of interesting creatures for their Discovery journal. As Peter strives to help the injured manatee, his world grows and expands. Florida is the perfect backdrop of this story, full of the summery magic that exists most places with the added component of more intriguing and even dangerous creatures (including Mr. Reilly, who is less intriguing and more super grumpy).
Part of what makes Manatee Summer so engaging is the intricately developed characters, from the watch-shop-owner-turned-inventor grandfather to the kids’ parents to the grumpy arch-nemesis neighbor. Every character is thoroughly developed, jumping off the page and making the story really matter to the reader’s heart.
Griffith does a fantastic job of not only have realistic characters, but allowing other characters to see and be seen as their full selves. Whether it’s being vulnerable enough to share your full self or being wise enough to see through the behavior to the root cause, there are layers of nuance and discernment that develop throughout the novel. Learning to see someone fully, especially someone who has behaved hurtfully towards you, is huge growth for anyone regardless of age.
Another reason I love this book is that it has something we don’t often see a lot of– a friendship story centering on two boys. Peter, with his brash actions and adventuresome nature, is as different as can be from shy, introverted, cautious Tommy. But their friendship is balanced– they challenge each other and comfort each other equally. Their emotional intelligences differ as well, but each try to meet the other where they are. We especially see Peter’s journey to managing strong emotions, and how his handling of his emotional reactions affects how others perceive him. His recognition of this limiting his ability to help the manatee was done neatly, fitting into the narrative without detracting from the story. These coping skills are passed along organically, leaving the reader with the same tools Peter uses without it ever feeling preachy or instructional.
Peter also learns how to be a good advocate. Like many of us, and many young readers, he cares so much about the world. It is so broken in so many ways, and he realizes he has to choose what to focus on. This is another instance of Peter’s journey modeling how to make a difference in the real daily lives of readers of all ages. Learning how to appropriately advocate for what we’re passionate about is such an important tool, and I’m grateful to see it represented in this novel.
There are big themes dealt with in this full-hearted novel, from dealing with change to the hurt that comes from grandparents aging to kids juggling too much with adults not seeing all of it. These topics are seamlessly woven into an engaging plot, making the book all the more relatable and squeezing hearts along the way.
As a lifelong fan of manatees, I’m glad to see them center stage here. I’m sure this novel will create a new generation of kids obsessed with these gentle giants… let’s just hope their mom doesn’t make them wear a trash bag as their costume for their manatee presentation in third grade. What, that was just me!?
Manatee Summer is available for pre-order and will be out on June 28. Thank you to Evan Griffith, HarperCollins Children’s Books, and NetGalley for an advanced copy such that I could share my honest opinions.