As someone with spina bifida, I’ve always been disappointed by the lack of books featuring characters with this condition, so I was immediately interested in Jennifer Ann Mann’s Sunny Sweet series. I read a few reviews on Amazon, and they all likened the books to Beverly Cleary’s Ramona series. However, I find them more similar to the Fudge series by Judy Blume. The series tells the misadventures of eleven-year-old Masha Sweet and her six-year-old genius sister Sonya, a.k.a. Sunny. Like the Fudge books, each book in this series is told from the perspective of the older sibling—in this case Masha.
In the first book, Sunny Sweet Is So Not Sorry, Masha wakes up to find that Sunny has glued a veritable garden’s worth of plastic flowers to her hair. Her plans to not leave the house until the situation can be dealt with are ruined when her neighbor has a health emergency, and she and Sunny are the only ones around who can call an ambulance and accompany the neighbor to the hospital. While there, Masha meets Alice, a girl her age who has spina bifida. In the first book, we see very little of Alice. In fact, she isn’t even introduced until page 119 (out of 195). When several of the hospital’s younger patients see that Masha has to get her hair cut by the hospital’s barber, Alice is among them. Only in the teaser chapter at the end of the book do we find out that Alice has to be in the hospital for weeks at a time so the doctors can monitor her spinal cord.
Alice features more prominently in the second book, Sunny Sweet Is So Dead Meat, but not by much. When Masha and Sunny get lost in a cemetery, Alice sneaks out of the hospital to go rescue them. She stays with them for a while after that, until the three girls can catch the next bus back to the hospital.
Right away, I found the whole “Alice being in the hospital” thing to be a bit excessive. Even as someone with myelomeningocele spina bifida, the most severe form of spina bifida, I never spent that much time in hospitals as a kid. Certainly not weeks at a time like Alice. Unless it involved surgery (which, for me, didn’t come up much until my teenage years and early adulthood), the most time I spent in a hospital in one sitting was a few hours for things like ultrasounds, MRIs, and spina bifida clinics. Even those were only yearly or twice a year. Also, I thought it was strange that we didn’t even hear about Alice’s reasons for being in the hospital from Alice herself. That information came from Masha’s narration.
Alice barely appears in the third book, Sunny Sweet Can So Get Lost. She’s only mentioned in the form of Masha frantically calling her to tell her about the latest scheme of Sunny’s and in the teaser chapter for the next book.
The fourth book, Sunny Sweet Is So Not Scary, is where Alice features the most prominently. She and one of Masha’s other friends, Junchao, go to Masha’s house for a sleepover. In the first chapter, Masha mentions that Alice’s parents were hesitant to even let her go to the sleepover because they were worried about “spine problems.” As a kid, I was never allowed to spend the night at friends’ houses, either, but my spine was the least of my parents’ concern. They worried more about bladder and bowel issues, my legs being stepped on, or me getting hurt in other ways because of the poor circulation in my legs.
In terms of Alice and her spina bifida, I have mixed feelings about the series. It is nice to see spina bifida be mentioned outside of a medical text, and even more so in a book targeted towards younger audiences. However, Alice’s condition is so severely downplayed that it almost becomes irrelevant to her character. To me, just saying “oh, this person has spina bifida” is a bit meaningless. Which of the three forms of spina bifida does she even have? Does she also have hydrocephalus and have to worry about headaches? Does she have a Chiari malformation that makes it difficult for her to eat certain foods and leaves a constant ringing in her ears? Did she get a D in math just because she could or because she has dyscalculia?
There were bright spots to Alice’s portrayal, though, don’t get me wrong. As soon as Masha learns her name, Alice immediately stops being referred to as “the girl in the wheelchair.” Instead, the focus shifts to other details like Alice’s ponytail, her eyes, and her sense of humor. To me, this is an important choice because, from my own experience, too many people tend to focus on the wheelchair and not much else. I also applaud the way that Mann describes spina bifida. I often find it difficult to explain the condition, especially to someone much younger than I. She uses simple terms that would be easy for a reader who doesn’t have the condition to understand, stating that it’s “when your spine doesn’t close the right way before you’re born.” A third thing I really appreciated was the way it never felt like Alice fell into any of the common disability tropes. She’s never portrayed as someone who should be pitied, never the butt of any jokes (except for the ones she makes about herself), and is never an “inspiration porn” character.
However, because of the lack of specific, unique details of life with spina bifida, her paraplegia could have been caused by any other medical condition—even a traffic accident—and there would be no significant impact on the story. When you have any disability, especially one as severe as spina bifida, there are certain things that are just a part of everyday life, so adding little details would have truly helped distinguish the condition. It would only have taken a line here and there, too. Maybe a mention that the storm in book four made Alice’s ears feel funny, or a scene in book one that has Alice and Masha share lunch in the hospital cafeteria and Alice explains that they have to cook her vegetables almost to mush so she can swallow them more easily. Things like that would have made it easier for readers with spina bifida, particularly the myelomeningocele form, to see themselves reflected on the page and for others to learn about the condition.
The lack of details regarding Alice’s spina bifida aside, I thought she was a really cool character. She had this sort of dry, almost-cynical sense of humor that I found relatable despite our age difference. As for the books as a whole, I thought they were well-written and cute. And, who knows? Maybe seeing the words “spina bifida” in this series will encourage readers to do their own research and learn more about it.