The Carnival at Bray

Book review by
Mary Cosola, Common Sense Media
The Carnival at Bray Book Poster Image
Teen transplanted to Ireland finds her way in moving tale.

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A lot or a little?

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

Educational Value

Poetry; discussion of classic literature and 1990s rock bands; European geography and customs.

Positive Messages

Treasure the time you have with those closest to you. Challenge yourself to step outside of your comfort zone. You can love people despite their flaws, and you're worthy of being loved despite yours. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

In Chicago, Maggie's grandmother and uncle give her much needed stability. Kevin, her uncle and godfather, is a bit of a screw-up, but he loves Maggie fiercely and introduces her to essential books and rock bands, clues her in on the ways of the world, and wants her to learn from his mistakes. Eoin's aunt and uncle take him in because his mother is ill. An elderly man takes an interest in Maggie, lets his home be a safe haven for her. A teacher gives her advice and help.

Violence

Character throws ashtray at someone's head. Another character throws a liquor bottle at someone, resulting in minor injury. Long, bloody fistfight, resulting in broken nose and teeth and smashed furniture and dishes. Adult tries to strangle child.

Sex

Kissing, including French kissing. Teen sees people having sex. Teen sees porn. Kid overhears adults having sex. Description of girl giving boy oral sex. Teen has sex.

Language

"F--k" and its variations, "s--t" and its variations, "bitch," "Christ," "bulls--t," "d--k," "goddamn," "ass," "Jesus," "piss," "slut."

Consumerism

Coke, Newport cigarettes, Nyquil, Chevy Nova, Golden Nugget restaurant, Days Inn, Gatorade, Papa Chris restaurant, Baileys Irish Cream, Spin magazine, Twizzlers, Dunnes, HMV, White Castle, Lynx Dark Temptation cologne, McDonald's, Club Orange soda, Cidona, People magazine, West Coast Cooler, Converse, Dr. Martens, Volkswagen, Penney's, Boots. 

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Adults drink to excess frequently, and one sometimes takes a sleeping pill with alcohol. Parent has alcohol problem. Adults and teens smoke pot. Adult gives teen alcohol. Teens drink to excess. Adults and teens smoke cigarettes. Character uses cocaine. Character has drug problem but is not shown using.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Carnival at Bray is a coming-of-age story about Chicago teen Maggie Lynch, who is uprooted and moved to Ireland when her mother's boyfriend lands a job there. Maggie has trouble navigating her new life in the town of Bray, while also dealing with her hard-drinking mom and missing her loving, supportive grandmother and uncle back in Chicago. Early 1990s music, especially grunge (Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins), plays a large role in the story. When tragedy strikes, she embarks on a pilgrimage to honor the memory of a loved one. Characters sneak out and run away. Families fight ferociously, verbally and physically. Teen and adult characters smoke, drink, do drugs, and have sex. Infrequent strong language includes "s--t," "f--k," and their variations. The Carnival at Bray was named a 2015 Michael L. Printz Honor Book.

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What's the story?

Maggie Lynch has lived all her 16 years in Chicago. Her mother, Laura, who has cycled through boyfriends nonstop since Maggie's dad left the family years ago, decides to move Maggie and her sister to the seaside town of Bray, Ireland, where Laura's newest boyfriend has a job offer. THE CARNIVAL AT BRAY follows Maggie's attempts at making friends, finding love, dealing with a dysfunctional family, coping with loss, and taking risks. When she moves to Bray, Maggie must leave behind Grandma Ei, who has helped raise her, and Uncle Kevin, a musician who has taken on the job of Maggie's social and cultural educator. The book is set in the early 1990s, and the grunge music scene provides a backdrop and soundtrack for Maggie's life. Her world is rocked by bands her uncle loves and introduces her to, such as Nirvana and the Smashing Pumpkins. In Bray, she has a hard time making friends but finds unlikely friendship with the town's oldest citizen, Dan Sean. Eventually, she connects with a boy named Eoin and learns that many other people are coping with family drama and heartbreak. When she's faced with a tragedy, she takes off on a European musical pilgrimage that has her hanging out with freewheeling bohemians and getting into risky situations. 

Is it any good?

In The Carnival at Bray, author Jessie Ann Foley paints an honest and moving portrait of the turmoil faced by a teen raised in a dysfunctional family. Maggie's mom drinks too much, has a quick temper, and goes through one boyfriend after another. Maggie's encounters with the opposite sex are mostly depicted in a realistic way, except for the beginning of her relationship with Eoin. They barely speak and hardly know each other before they're kissing. This kind of "insta-love" is jarring and out of place in an otherwise realistic novel. Maggie's grief over a tragedy and her rage at her mother are palpable. Her journey to Rome to fulfill a promise is a thrill and an object lesson in flying by the seat of your pants.

Foley's writing is beautiful and descriptive, and the dialogue rings true. The books shines a light on why many people turn to drugs, alcohol, and sex to combat deep-seated unhappiness. The concert scenes accurately capture the excitement of discovering music that speaks to you and sharing that euphoria with a crowd of strangers. The ending, however, feels rushed and disappointing. After so much action and anguish, Foley only gives us a paragraph followed by a brief epilogue to tell readers what happens. The book has a serious time line error regarding Kurt Cobain's death and the subsequent cancellation of Nirvana's European tour. It also has continuity errors regarding Eoin's academic situation and the status of his and Maggie's relationship at the end. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about disagreements. How does your family settle differences, or do they deal with them at all? Can you think of ways of discussing and dealing with family issues before they become huge problems?

  • Do you think the media mythologizes musicians who die young, even if their deaths are due to drugs or suicide? Why do you think this happens?

  • Do you have a list of essential books you think everyone should read? Or bands you think everyone should listen to? What about bands you aspire to see and books you aspire to read one day?

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