||Newbery Medal-winning novelist Karen Hesse--known for her painterly ability to re-create historical worlds for young readers--turns her attention this time to a contemporary family that lives as if in another era. The engrossing, eight-member Faulstich family, residents of an Appalachian hill village perhaps in Kentucky or West Virginia, has learned to endure impoverished conditions ever since Pa got laid off from the mine. Only the children are guaranteed a "sandwich" each day (bread spread so thin with jelly "you can hardly find the purple"); there are no regular doctor or dentist visits, even for Ma, who is carrying another baby; and the only surprise presents at Christmas are the ones the older girls make at school.
Smack in the middle of this brood is the narrator, 9-year-old Juice Faulstich, a sweet, resilient tomboy who likes to explore and learn. She gets along well with her big and little sisters, has talent as an apprentice metalworker in her Pa's makeshift shop, and forgets every worry when she's dancing to fiddle music. She's so capable, in fact, she's the family member all the little ones look up to the most. Yet it turns out that the highly skilled Juice, who can handle everything from power tools to her Pa's depression ("We all look out for him. But I look out for him best, even Ma says so") is plagued by an inability to understand letters and reading. "No one believes me. No one believes how hard I try. No matter what I do, it's never enough," she explains.
With wonderfully gentle narrative pacing, Just Juice weaves together a compelling plot that involves Juice's learning challenges, Ma's suddenly difficult pregnancy, and a pending foreclosure on the family house due to unpaid taxes. It may sound bleak, yet in Hesse's able hands the Faulstich clan remains hopeful, creative, and kind with one another throughout--almost even more so when things seem the darkest. This fine book abounds with memorable and true images of family love, personal perseverance, and unexpected, effervescent breakthroughs. (Ages 8 and older) --Jean Lenihan