Peas and Carrots, by Tanita S. Davis (Knopf Books for Young Readers , upper MG/YA, Feb. 9, 2016) is the story of two 15-year-old girls, Hope and Odessa, who are forced to live together by fate (in the form of Hope's parents). Hope's parents took in Odessa's little brother several years ago, and now have opened their home to Dess as well. Hope and Dess are the same age, and the same gender, but don't have much else in common. Hope has been loved and cared for by both parents in a comfortably affluent home for all her life, Dess lives in a constant state of anxious stress-- her drug addicted mother is going to testify against her nasty felon of a father, and it's easy for Dess to imagine him coming to take his anger out on her. So do Dess and Hope form an instant bond and become true sisters to each other easily? Nope.
Told in the alternating perspectives of the two girls, Dess and Hope navigate their uneasy new relationships with Dess lashing out with barbed remarks and general hostility, and Hope responding with hurt and resentment. But as the weeks unfold, Hope find the backbone to zing right back at Dess (though she'll never be in Dess's league), and Dess's hostility fades to the point where instead of taking Hope down, she is encouraging Hope to take chances (with both fashion and boys).
But Dess's fear of her father continues to weigh on her, and when her grandmother has a bad fall, Dess is sure it was her father attacking her. Dess has not seen her grandmother since she was eleven, when her grandmother refused to offer her and the baby brother a home with her. They had been close to her before, but all the letters Dess has gotten from her since have sat unread, until now. With the possibility of her grandmother's death very real, Dess reads the letters, and knows she must visit her grandmother, even though running off from her foster home means that she'll now have to fend for herself.
But Hope and her family come through for her, and Dess realizes that she doesn't have to be quite as tough and independent as she's been bracing herself to be all these years.
So it's a book about any number of things, but the book as I read it was a story about growing up and being a teenage girl and navigating friendships with people who aren't like you, and though I, like Hope, looked at Dess with wary eyes, she grew on me, and though, like Dess, I thought Hope was a tad immagure and wet, and needed more self-confidence, Hope also grew on me, and I liked very much reading about the relationship they were able to build. So even though there are dark and gritty things always present in Dess's mind, the book itself didn't feel like a "problem" novel; it felt warm and friendly. And the bulk of the credit for this goes to Hope's parents, who are truly lovely and good hearted fictional parents, which makes for a refreshing change!
I also appreciated the casual (by which I mean not emphasized with heavy moralizing) inclusion of issues of body acceptance, religion as meaningful part of Hope's family's life (one they weren't going to force Dess to participate in), and even more so, issues of race. When I saw the cover, knowing one of the girls shown was a foster kid from a gritty urban background, I assumed it was the black girl. Which is not the case; Dess is a white girl fostered into a black family. And this is something that comes, for the characters, as something to be navigated as their own assumptions and the assumptions of outsiders are challenged. Which in turn nicely challenges the assumptions a reader might be bringing to the story.
What I personally liked best is that Dess is a sewey-crafty sort of person, who can take an old grandma sweater and make it into a fun and flirty dress (for Hope, and it looks great on her, though she can't help but nervously keep trying to pull the short hemline down). I'm not sure why, but I really like to read about that sort of thing....
So yeah, I enjoyed it lots, which is nice for me because Tanita is a friend of mine and she sent me a review copy, and in such cases it always much more comfortable to be able to say "thank a lot, I really enjoyed it" than not to be able to.
Peas and Carrots teeters between middle grade and YA in feel, making it a good for the seventh or eight grader who is starting to look upward. There are references to teens doing drugs and drinking, though the kids here don't, and there's teen romance stuff starting to happen, though there's no sex.