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Sunnyside Plaza

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
Sunnyside Plaza Book Poster Image
Brilliant, complex disability tale best for mature readers.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

When some new friends take them to a ball game, Sally and her friends learn about scoreboards and the tale they tell. The story offers a window into the world of developmentally disabled people living in group homes.

Positive Messages

This is the rare book that makes the reader feel kindness and empathy, rather than delivering thinly disguised sermons on the subject, by seeing the story's events and interactions through Sal's eyes. Strong messages of friendship, family, and not being held back by other people's sense of your limitations.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Sally is optimistic, determined, tenacious, and brave. She's also a very good friend, and not one to be held back by other people's sense of her limitations. Detectives Rivas and Bridges and their extended families accept and appreciate Sally and her friends the way they are, and make them part of their lives. The residents' adult caregivers are kind, caring, and sometimes overwhelmed. Some other kids and adults are mean and make fun of the "crazy" people.

Violence

Two residents die under suspicious circumstances of strokes; one is discovered by his friends and there's some detail about his body. Another has a stroke that's not fatal, also under suspicious circumstances. Pretty much all the residents have been abandoned by their parents, many of whom are long dead, but they fantasize about their moms coming back for them. A man is enriching himself by selling dangerously outdated food to unsuspecting customers.

Sex

One of the female Sunnyside residents is described as sneaking off at night to sleep with one of the boys, but there are no sexual overtones and it's never mentioned again. Some talk about how Detective Bridges and his girlfriend ought to get married.

Language

Following a heartrending moment when one of the residents returns a lost ball to a little girl, only to have the kid's mom grab her and flee while talking to the man like he's an attacker, Detective Rivas observes that the reason the woman did this was that she was a "butthole." Which becomes the word of the day for a while. When an adult hears about another's bad deeds, he says, "That SOB." 

Consumerism

Sal will occasionally deliver an entire paragraph's worth of random one-liners, many of which are recognizably from commercials she's seen on TV.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Adults drink wine at a Passover seder, but Sally and her friends stick with grape juice. One scene takes place in a bar, where the friends seek directions to the police station. Shortly thereafter, they also seek directions at the mission that's trying to save the drunks from the bar. Adults discussing the disabled residents note that some of them are the children of addicts who probably aren't around any more. Some discussion of the prescription medicine the residents take.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Sunnyside Plaza is a brilliant, triumphant, heartfelt, often hilarious story by award-winning journalist Scott Simon, inspired by his college job working in a group home. Despite the publisher's age recommendation of 8-12, however, the story seems to be aimed at a much older, even adult audience, as much of it involves things that will be too intense (adult characters living at Sunnyside Plaza have the minds and emotions of preschoolers wondering when their parents will come back for them), too unethical (selling outdated food for profit, adult prejudice against the disabled), or too sophisticated (wisecracking participants at a seder) for many younger readers. The narrator and lead character is a developmentally disabled 19-year-old woman who lives in a group home with other residents who, like her, have the cognitive skills and emotional range of little kids, but most are middle-aged and some elderly. Three residents have strokes, two of them fatal, and one of the bodies gets stared at; the police regard the deaths as suspicious. A memorable scene involves a police detective telling Sally and her friends that a mean adult behaves that way because she's a "butthole."

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What's the story?

Sally Miyake, aka Sal Gal, has lived at SUNNYSIDE PLAZA, a group home for developmentally disabled adults, for most of her 19 years. She helps in the kitchen, enjoys watching TV and coloring with her friends, and pretty much has a quiet life. When one of the elderly residents dies unexpectedly, and two police detectives arrive to check things out, Sal quickly makes friends with them and their families. When a second resident also dies, and a third suffers a near-fatal stroke, the investigation takes a more serious turn, and Sunnyside Plaza may be shut down due to the suspicious deaths. Being a good deal more resourceful than she gets credit for, and also being inspired by the example of her her police friends and their families, Sal is determined to solve the mystery and save her home.

Is it any good?

Narrator Sal Gal may see things differently, but she doesn't let other people's prejudices stop her from acting to save her group home in Scott Simon's unusual tale of spirit and determination. Along the way, she meets a lot of kind people who broaden her horizons with baseball games, picnics, and holiday celebrations -- and also a lot of mean people who mock her and her friends for being developmentally disabled and act like they're not worth much. Solving the problem of unexpected deaths in the home -- which might cause Sunnyside Plaza to shut down and leave its residents to an unknown fate -- takes luck, persistence, and collaboration.

Sally's narrative voice, punctuated with random lines from TV commercials and assorted numbers, is determined, engaging, and kid-like, which, coming from an apparent adult, may be too much of an imaginative leap for many younger readers. But if you can make that leap, you're in for quite a ride with a person you'll be glad you met: "I know more than I can say. I know things I don't know how to say. Even if I have heard words and know them, I can't always say them. Sometimes it feels like I have a rock inside that sits on words. But I hear things and see things. I notice and figure out things. It's all here, inside."

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about people with disabilities, and how they're portrayed in stories like Sunnyside Plaza. Are prejudice and stereotypes an issue? What other stories do you know that have main characters who are treated badly because others think they're strange? How do they deal with it?

  • A man who's caught doing bad things to other people to make money offers the excuse that he's doing it "to feed my family." Do you think that makes it OK to harm others?

  • Have you ever been to a Passover celebration? Was it like the seder described in Sunnyside Plaza, or completely different?

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