Books Reading Themes Water Tales Young Adult (YA) Literature

Junonia by Kevin Henkes: A Tale of Self-Discovery


“Sometimes you have to kind of die inside in order to rise from your own ashes
and believe in yourself and love yourself to become a new person.”
– Gerard Way

A couple of weeks ago, I was doing my usual window-shopping at the children’s section of Barnes & Noble. I was hoping to find books containing water tales, but it seemed as if they all went in hiding that day. Then I saw Junonia by Kevin Henkes. I nearly missed it because it was tucked in between two big books.


Before I came across this book, I had no idea what a junonia was. As much as I love picking shells along the shores, I’m so horrible with their names. Yet there it was, on the front cover. There was more than a dozen junonias surrounding Alice Rice, the protagonist of the story.

For Beach Lovers and Merpeople in Their Past Lives

Returning to the beach cottage – a cottage named Scallop – where she has always celebrated her birthday is a special occasion for Alice Rice.

Who will see the first dolphin this time? The first pelican? What will have changed? Stayed the same? And will this be the year she finally finds a junonia shell?

If Alice is lucky, everything will be absolutely perfect… (From the back cover)

I wasn’t too drawn to the story when I read the passages above, which can be found in the back synopsis. However, my excitement grew when I found out that the story was set in the beautiful Sanibel Island in Florida. While I have never set foot in said island, my boyfriend had mentioned it to me a few times last year. He said that his family would go there once in a while. In fact, here’s a bunch of photos taken by Daniel’s dad, Dave, from their most recent trip to Sanibel Island in May 2012. All photos were published with Dave’s permission.



Clouds ~
Clouds ~
Sunset at Sanibel Island.
Sunset at Sanibel Island.
It just keeps getting better and better.
It just keeps getting better and better.

Every year, during Alice’s birthday, Alice Rice and her family would go to Sanibel Island to celebrate her special day. What was special about that year was the fact that Alice Rice would be celebrating her tenth birthday. Ten. Double digits. She was excited, and she hoped that things would go perfectly as planned.

Slowly but surely, Kevin Henkes was speaking to my heart. I was suddenly reminded of my childhood days when my mom, my younger sister, and I would travel to mom’s provincial hometown situated by the sea. In truth, it doesn’t matter where I go, really. I would always take time to walk along the shore to collect shells. However, unlike me, Alice Rice knows the shells by heart. (I owe it to Kevin Henkes and this book for teaching me a thing or two about shells.) For her tenth birthday, Alice hoped to find a junonia, a nearly impossible catch.

Here are a couple of ‘shell’ photos taken by Dave.

Not sure if it's a tulip or a small conch shell.
Not sure if it’s a tulip or a small conch shell.
Bright, bold, and beautiful conch shell.
Bright, bold, and beautiful conch shell.


There’s An ‘Alice Rice’ Inside All of Us

“Maturity is when your world opens up, and you realize that you are not the center of it.”
– M.J. Croan

Alice loved being in Sanibel Island not only for the shells, but also for the people she’d be spending her birthday with. There were the Wishmeiers and their grandchildren, Helen Blair, Mr. Barden, and Alice’s mother’s college friend, Kate. Alice was an only child, so thought of these people as their family even though they weren’t related to her by blood. Alice was certain that it was going to be the best birthday she would ever had.

Unfortunately for our birthday girl, some people could not make it to her birthday that year. Mr. and Mrs. Wishmeier’s grandchildren had too many schoolwork so they had to stay home. Helen Blair, on the other hand, could not make it due to a big snowstorm in New York City where Helen lives. To make matters worse, Kate arrived with her boyfriend Tom and Tom’s six-year-old daughter Mallory. Things certainly weren’t looking up for Alice.

The rest of the story continued with Alice feeling more and more miserable about the whole situation. Not only could she not spend time properly with the people she loves, she felt hopeless about finding a junonia, possibly the only thing that would turn her frown downside up. To add salt to injury, she overheard Mr. Barden say that Mallory was the prettiest girl he ever saw.

The words stung. Tears welled up in Alice’s eyes.

Alice knew that she wasn’t the prettiest girl in the world, and who cared anyway? But Mr. Barden was supposed to be her friend, not Mallory’s. He’d been disloyal and had hurt her feelings, and she thought that by the time you were his age, you’d know better.

She was convinced that Mr. Barden wouldn’t have made his remark if she didn’t have her speck. She had forgiven him when he’d tried to wipe it away yesterday, but this was different. (pp. 68-69)

Family Circle noted, “Henkes captures the honest frustrations and not-so-nice moments of kid-dom, wrapped in spare, lilting language and evocative illustrations.” This is the second book of Kevin Henkes that I’ve read, the first one was his picture book called Jessica, which I reviewed in May 2012. Even though I had a rocky start reading Junonia, I like how Henkes does not sugar coat. The events that took place and the emotions that Alice felt in the story were raw and honest. I was getting frustrated myself.

It was then that I realized that there’s an Alice Rice inside all of us. Many times in our lives we’ve felt what Alice felt. Many times, we’ve become Alice Rice. We go about our everyday lives planning for the perfect day, the perfect occasion, the perfect moment. We forget that there is no such thing as ‘perfect,’ and we throw fits like children when things do not go according to plan. Even as grown ups, we forget that life isn’t all about achieving perfection. It’s about seizing every opportunity, and taking in every moment that is given to us, whether or not it goes with our plan. We make do with what life offers us, and this is an important thing to teach children, especially if they are at an age when they think the world revolves around them.

Of Growing Up and Finding Oneself

“It’s about a girl who is on the cusp of becoming someone.
A girl who may not know what she wants right now,
and she may not know who she is right now, but who deserves the chance to find out.”
– Jodi Picoult, My Sister’s Keeper

Given all her experiences in the island, Alice learned the hard way what it means to enjoy life. I think that we are all entitled to a moment of selfishness on our birthday. However, we should be humbled by the thought that it’s also because of the people around us, the people that surround us with love and affection, that make our days – not just our birthdays – brighter and worth looking forward to.

It was astonishing how similar some of the smaller spots on the junonia were to her speck. Same size, same color, same shape. She wouldn’t have been able to put it into words, but this discovery made her happy. (p. 163)

Alice reminded me of Julianne Moore’s Freckleface Strawberry. They both have something in their faces that prevent them from appreciating who they are. This is another relevant topic of discussion for children. It’s always a good thing to instill in them the value of self-worth and self-appreciation. Even adults need this kind of pep talk!

Junonia is more than just the beautiful description of the beach. It is a story about growing up and finding oneself. It is a story of every ten-year-old. It is a story of you and me.

Fats is the Assistant Manager for Circulation Services at the Wayne County Public Library in Wooster, Ohio. She considers herself a reader of all sorts, although she needs to work on her non-fiction reading. Fats likes a good mystery but is not too fond of thrillers. She takes book hoarding seriously and enjoys collecting bookmarks and tote bags. When she is not reading, Fats likes to shop pet apparel for her cat Penny (who absolutely loathes it).

1 comment on “Junonia by Kevin Henkes: A Tale of Self-Discovery

  1. Lovely post. I love Keven Henkes and was not familiar with this book. It sounds like a lovely coming of age book. I have spent many summer vacations on Sanibel Isand — even spent some of my honeymoon there. Beautiful Island. Visit occasionally when I go to Siesta Key, which has a nicer crescent beach. But, Sanibel has it’s own beauty. Hope you visit some day.


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