This novel begins in 1987 in Venice Beach, California. Ten-year-old Beatrice “Bug” Contreras is upset to find out that her 14-year-old brother Daniel no longer wants to hang out with *her* all summer – he has more “grown-up” interests now and needs “space.” This development was doubly punishing for Bug, who loved hanging out with her brother and loved the beach, but wasn’t allowed to go by herself. She resented Danny mightily for it, and protested to her mom it wasn’t fair, but as her mother always pointed out to her, “Life isn’t fair. The most you can hope for is that it’s just.”
Then she found out that 11-year old Frankie was coming from Ohio to spend the summer with his Uncle Phillip, who was Bug’s upstairs neighbor. Bug thought perhaps Frankie could fill Daniel’s role for Bug, but Frankie didn’t seem much interested in the beach. Rather, Frankie rather was focused on helping to find out the identity of the “Midnight Marauder,” a mysterious serial killer in the area. In fact, it seemed to Bug she had nothing in common with Frankie, but they were destined to spend the summer together, and Bug had to learn to adjust. Why didn’t Frankie agree to like what Bug liked? How could Frankie not? Part of that adjustment was coming to understand the world didn’t revolve around her and her interests and wishes.
Bug faced other problems that summer. The Contreras family, made up of Mama, Bug, and Danny, was mixed-race – at least the kids were; their mother was white, but their father had been Salvadoran. The skinheads on the beach only saw brown skin, and called them “Mexican monkeys,” especially Danny, who looked more like his father than Bug did.
(Bug both resented that Danny looked more like him, but also was glad she didn’t. All her feelings were confused. Her father, about whom she heard so much, had died in a car accident seven weeks before she was born. “That,” Bug thought, “was a kind of unfair that hurt too much to speak of.”)
The skinheads also threatened Mama in a sexually abusive way. Bug hated them, but Mama said she felt sorry for them:
“People who need to exert force to make themselves feel strong are weak. They’re scared people who need to scare people. It’s pretty pathetic when you think about it.”
And there seemed to be secrets everywhere to which Bug was not privy. Something bad happened to Phillip – no one would tell her what – and Mama needed to stay in his apartment to help him. Mama’s sister arrived to take care of Bug and Frankie, albeit begrudgingly. Bug knew everyone was hiding something, and part of that had to do with the history of her family.
Bug finally learned the truth about all the mysteries surrounding her. The most important things she found out though, were that stereotypes had nothing to do with the complexity of human beings, and that family is better defined as those who love and care for you, rather than those who are just related by blood. Or as Lin-Manuel Miranda would say, love is love is love is love.
Evaluation: I was not disappointed at all in this charming coming-of-age middle grade debut by Forman. It is designated for kids 9-12, but I loved it, and would recommend it for all readers. As a bonus, the depiction of Venice Beach, California in the late 1980s captures precisely that moment in time and what it was like.
Published by Aladdin, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division, 2021