Sunnyside Plaza by Scott Simon

The mentally-challenged adults of Sunnyside Plaza step out of their comfort zone to solve a mystery.

Sunnyside Plaza by Scott Simon. Little, Brown, 2020, 192 pages

Reading Level: Middle Grades, ages 8-10

Recommended for: ages 10-15

Sally Miyake is 8 times 2 plus 3 years old and can’t read, but still knows a lot of things. She lives in a cozy house in Chicago, with Ms. Byrne and Conrad the cook and seven others who are “different,” like her. One morning, housemate Laurence doesn’t wake up, and two detectives come calling. This is Standard Operating Procedure when someone dies alone—nothing out of the ordinary, until Julius passes away too.  He was 73, though, so that part seems natural enough. Detectives Esther Rivas and Lon Bridges (who are married, with children) take a liking to Sally and start to invite her to family outings, including a Seder dinner at their home. Their friendship is opening up a whole new world to her, until her best friend Mary has a stroke. Clearly, something out of the ordinary is going on. When Sally discovers a clue, she will have to step way out of her comfort zone to deliver the evidence.

If you listen to NPR, or have ever listened to NPR, you’ve heard author Scott Simon’s warm, friendly voice and infectious laugh. This is his first children’s novel, and it doesn’t quite read like a children’s novel, with its adult characters and slow pace. The action unfolds through Sally’s limited perspective but reader patience will be rewarded. Most of us have little contact with mentally challenged adults, but Simon worked at such a group home in his early twenties, and his rendering of Sally’s voice and experience sounds authentic. The main message, clearly, is that these people have lives worth living. As Sally tells one naysayer:

I’m glad I was born! . . . I may not know if it’s Tuesday or Wednesday, or how to ride the bus alone, or walk to the park by myself, or how to tie my shoes. But I know my friends . . . I like to work. I like people . . . I’m glad I was born. And I’m glad that I’m different than you.

That’s as fine a testimony as any about the inherent value of human life, whatever its limitations.

Considerations:

  • A few vulgar words are used to describe one character, who fits the description.
  • A discussion about the afterlife pictures heaven as a reward that we have to earn.

Overall Rating: 4 (out of 5)

  • Worldview/moral value: 4
  • Artistic/literary value: 4

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Also at Redeemed Reader

  • Emily Colson’s Dancing with Max describes the author’s long odyssey of faith and hope with an autistic son, from childhood to adulthood.
  • Temple Grandin’s Calling All Minds shows how different styles of thinking can lead to great discoveries.
  • Experiencing the Autism spectrum is the subject of several recent children’s novels, featuring characters whose relationship with the world is sometimes precarious. See our reviews of Marcello in the Real World, Rules, Mockingbird, Me and Sam-Sam Handle the Apocalypse, and Rain Reign.
  • How to Talk to an Autistic Kid, by an actual autistic kid, helps young readers relate to someone their age who doesn’t always seem to respond as “normal” people do.
  • Few children’s novels deal with mentally-challenged adults. We never reviewed it, but can recommend The Man Who Loved Clowns by June Rae Wood. The author drew upon her own experience with a Down-Syndrome brother to write about the protagonist’s complicated relationship an uncle similarly challenged.

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Janie

Janie is the VERY senior staff writer for Redeemed Reader, as well as a long-time contributor to WORLD Magazine and an author of nine books for children. The rest of the time she's long-distance smooching on her four grandchildren (not an easy task). She lives with her equally senior husband of almost-fifty years in the Ozarks of Missouri.

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