Make Lemonade by Virginia Euwer Wolff – Review by Amber McMath
It all started with a crucial decision and crates upon crates of novels. I was a new teacher digging through the school library storeroom hoping to strike gold with some forgotten but genius book for my seventh graders to read together. Crammed between Missing May and Al Capone Does My Shirts was a tattered class set of Make Lemonade. Let’s see—a high school dropout gets help from a babysitter, coming of age stuff, really nasty apartment, and a spit up spider—I think I loved it. That was the most I could muster up, having read the novel as a middle schooler twenty years before.
A more dustjacket-worthy summary would be this: In Virginia Euwer Wolff’s 1993 award-winning book, readers fall in love with two struggling teenagers. Jolly is a defeated teenage mother of two, and LaVaughn is the babysitter who doesn’t want to end up like her. Their tales are woven together with Wolff’s beautifully written verse that tastefully deals with the issue of poverty and all that comes with it.
LaVaughn’s first-person narration captures their family portrait:
We must have looked like some kind of family
going along in our separate kind of walks:
Jeremy dancing his Hacky sack dance,
Jolly shimmying her shimmy of
“I got no problems, no babies’ dads disappeared on me
and I ain’t been fired from my job,”
Jilly bouncing on my arm and humming
and leaning out from my hip like a flag waving itself.
A family from the continent of I don’t know what. (page 91)
When I discovered the basket of Make Lemonade in the store room, I knew instantly that LaVaughn’s story and Wolff’s poetry would become a permanent part of my reading curriculum. The story itself could stand completely on its own. If you stripped away every well-crafted simile and metaphor, the bare bones are enough. But Wolff doesn’t settle for just a story. On every page she demonstrates perfect mastery of the writer’s rule of “Show. Don’t tell.” What a treasured practice that forces the reader to slow down. Reading a passage like this one is like driving on an old gravel road. Wolff invites you to stop and enjoy the view, and you endure the bumpy ride because the striking view really is worth it.
Jolly came home bleeding and she
doesn’t have folks.
“Nobody doesn’t have folks,” I said.
“I’m Nobody, then,” she said,
“‘Cause I don’t.” Her whole face was scraped
like it had a grater taken to it,
like it was cheese. (page 33)
How could I rob my students of this? I pushed full-steam ahead until it became glaringly obvious that they were not buying what Wolff was selling—saving for college, being inexplicably fired, and welfare. For every major conflict in the book, my students (upper middle class, mostly boys) had objections. Question after question revealed their need to know what an impoverished life looked like. They were invested in the characters, but they couldn’t make sense of the “realistic” part of realistic fiction.
So I arranged for them to participate in a homeless simulation program where they survived alone on the streets of the inner city for a week. Just kidding. I’m not sure if that would get me fired or earn me Teacher of the Year.
Instead we soaked ourselves in articles and news segments. We took a “Could You Survive in Poverty” survey that uncovered how little we knew about that culture. We invited a guest speaker from the local Pregnancy Resource Center to share the obstacles teenage mothers have as well as the options they can take advantage of. We interviewed parents about their views on welfare and other assistance programs to help shape our own worldviews. In the end, we organized a diaper drive and donated over a thousand diapers to a local nonprofit that helps mothers in need.
The curriculum was created by my students’ desire to tear down the wall between themselves and the characters. While this wasn’t in my lesson plans, it sure beat making a list of all the similes in the book.
We owe Wolff more than an oversimplified reading. She delivers a masterpiece of hurt and healing. She creates a tug-of-war in LaVaughn that translates to the reader’s own inner conflict about entitlement. She personifies poverty in Jolly’s children, their too-tight shoes and deficit of diapers. If we reduce Make Lemonade to a few simple ingredients of character, setting, and figurative language, we consume only the sweet and completely miss the sour. My students needed this story to scrape their hearts. It awakened ignorance, inspired compassion, and evoked action. Any book that can rattle the know-it-all minds of adolescents deserves high praise.
By the final page, my students had come to realize a profound truth: In this big world full of “fear and hardness” as LaVaughn would say, there is a person who needs you as much as you need them. I was never more grateful for an old class set of books.
Amber McMath is unfortunately not a math teacher. She has the privilege of serving seventh grade students in Owasso, OK, where she has taught language arts for seven years. Prior to that, she taught English in Mali, West Africa. She’s that teacher who has a website at www.imthatteacher.com where she hopes to help all teachers be That Teacher they want to be.