It was a great game for the school bus. The goal: name all eleven siblings in age and grade order (a few were usually scattered about among the rows of sticky, green vinyl bus seats.) The winner got nothing more than bragging rights, but that was something, especially when you lived in a quiet suburban neighborhood.
Sometimes the kids in this family would join the game, and it was fun to see them struggle to remember the specific details pertaining to their brothers and sisters. They weren’t always the fastest to come up with all the right information. Others on the bus knew that two were in college, two were in high school, and that there was a set of middle-school twins stuck in the center of the parade of siblings. The older group was then followed by an assortment of elementary-aged siblings, trailing all the way down to the youngest, a toddler in preschool.
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I loved that game because I loved the idea of growing up in a sprawling kind of family. Picturing myself as one of those siblings on the bus is where the story of Next Door to Happy began.
I that theirs would be the perfect family believed to group in; If you were a part of it, you would always have a playmate, a confidante, a best friend.
Other large families I knew growing up helped fill in the details of my imaginary world. There was the group of seven who ate dinner for breakfast because it was the only time all the kids were available. I envisioned them in a warm kitchen full of noise in the mornings, all sitting down to big bowls of spaghetti and meatballs.
A household nearby had five siblings who would regularly pile into their station wagon, brandishing various-sized tennis racquets on their way to play a few games with each other. Their numbers were perfect for two teams of doubles with a spare remaining to sit on the bench and substitute in case of injury or fatigue.
Then there was the family who “owned” the town swimming pool where I spent most of my summers. The eldest was a much-loved lifeguard, and his younger school-aged siblings did double duty competing on the swim team and working at the snack bar selling hot dogs and fries. Their last name dominated the record boards in every swimming event. When it was time for swim lessons, the youngest of the family didn’t need them. She had already spent her earliest years at the pool, getting the private instruction from her brothers and sisters that put her far ahead of other kids of her own age.
I had just one older brother and pretty much by the time middle school hit, he didn’t want to go to the pool or sit on the bus or eat a spaghetti dinner or play tennis with me at all. He had his own friends, and they weren’t particularly interested in having me tag along with them.
In Next Door to HappyViolet, who’s a little lonely and a little lost, watches as the large and rambunctious Walker family move in, and she becomes desperate to become a part of their seemingly charmed life. Her own family might be loving in their own manner, but there’s no way they would qualify as fun. Violet is jealous of the energy and the easy laughter next door, and she longs for the kind of security she senses would come from being a part of a family like the Walkers.
As a young reader, I craved that same security, and I loved books that created that kind of comfort. I never needed a complicated plot, just enough siblings so that I could feel the warmth of those family ties through the pages. All-of-a-kind Family, Little Women, The Saturdays, Half Magic. Better to have at least four kids in the mix, but even three siblings would do!
I seemed to have passed on the same predilection to my own children; some of my daughter’s favorites have been The Penderwicks and The Willoughby’s. Today, recent books that hit those same notes are The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street, One Crazy Summerand We Dream of Space.
A similar pleasure comes from books that don’t feature stories of big biological households–but instead, relate the stories of the families we choose. I’ve also been inspired by these books, where kids who might also be a little lost and a little lonely in some way, create their own families, like the group of four from The Mysterious Benedict Society books do.
By the end of Next Door to HappyViolet not only comes to a new appreciation for her parents after seeing that the Walkers’ life is not as charmed as she imagined, but she also makes her own family-like connections by finding real friends she can depend on. And that’s what I hope readers of Next Door to Happy will get: an understanding that they can find security, fun, laughter, and plenty of love from whatever imperfect kind of family they put together in their own lives.
Meet the author
Allison Weiser Strout lives in NYC and Maine. She has three kids who are not named for children’s book characters: Griffin, Eliza and Nate. And two dogs who are: Percy (Jackson) and Ramona (The Pest). Next Door to Happy is her debut novel.
About Next Door to Happy
Twelve-year-old Violet Crane is an only child in a lonely household who longs to be part of the gregarious family that’s just moved in next door.
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With a mother struggling with anxiety, a father who recently moved out, and no siblings to commiserate with, socially awkward Violet Crane feels like she is starting middle school with less going for herself than that of your average kid.
When the rambunctious Walker family moves in next door, Violet can’t help but wish she could become a part of their household—everyone and everything seems so normal compared to her own.
After she meets them, Violet falls in love with all five Walker siblings and especially with Mrs. Walker, who is nothing like her own mother. Violet and Reggie, the black sheep of the Walker family, find that they have an easy understanding of each other, and it doesn’t hurt that they are in the same grade at school.
But then Violet overhears a conversation between Reggie and his mother in which she tells him that she doesn’t feel like Violet is an appropriate friend. Violet is devastated until she faces a truth–no person, family or friendship is perfect—and realizes just how lucky she is.
Publisher: Margaret Ferguson Books/Holiday House
Publication date: 07/12/2022
Age Range: 9 – 12 Years
Filed under: Guest Post