Title: Sunshine on Vinegar Street
Author: Karen Comer
Publisher: Allen and Unwin
Publication date: 30 May 2023
Additional notable information: A comprehensive teacher resource can be downloaded from the Allen and Unwin website here.
Sunshine on Vinegar Street by Karen Comer and published by Allen and Unwin is a gripping and stirring verse novel set in Melbourne and imbued with symbolism that will have young readers 8+ cheering for the protagonist, Freya. She navigates a whole new world after moving away from all that she knows and loves. Karen Comer uses basketball throughout this lyrical novel as a metaphor for life with each section of the book titled using basketball terms (which are succinctly defined and then compared in a single sentence to a life experience), for example, “assists”, in basketball “when a player passes the ball to a teammate who then scores a goal. Life: when someone shows kindness or helps someone in need”. (p.171). Throughout the story Karen Comer has also incorporated a score board similar to a basketball one, where Freya scores her experiences and records them as a point for either her or her new suburb, Abbotsford. This is an absorbing read that will resonate with young readers as many will relate to Freya’s experiences as she navigates friendship issues and mean girls, grapples with the team dynamics in her new basketball team, deals with some of her team mates that are threatened by her, experiences the positive and negatives of using social media and rides the rollercoaster that can exist when one is trying to find their place in a new environment. Freya’s solid sense of morality and strong moral compass shines through in this story as she is kind, compassionate, empathetic, forgiving, a team player, loyal friend, selfless and courageous. She shows grit, resilience and determination in the face of adversity and in her quest for acceptance and a sense of belonging.
Life as Freya knows it (and loves it) is forever changed when her Dad accepts a job in Broome causing her to relocate with her Mum. She moves from Eltham where her home was two houses, side by side (her Dad lived in one and her Mum in the other and both were home to Freya) to an apartment in Abbotsford. In Eltham she has her two best friends, Raffie and Gemma and her beloved basketball team where she played centre and was a highly skilled and respected player. Now, home is on the eleventh floor of an apartment block on Vinegar Street, Abbotsford. From her balcony, Freya can see the iconic Skipping Girl sign, Little Audrey, that she adored when she was little and her Mum thought she would enjoy living so close too. Initially, Freya sees Little Audrey as “stuck” just like her. The eleventh floor proves quite challenging for Freya who has a phobia of lifts as a result of a childhood accident.
Avoiding lifts is one of many challenges Freya faces. Now in a new place without her Dad who she desperately misses, Freya confronts for the first time judgement about her unconventional family. Despite her strong basketball skills she struggles to find acceptance in the Abbotsford Raptors basketball team. This is made all the more difficult by a few girls in the team, Val and Milly, who are threatened by Freya. Their jealousy drives their actions and behaviours trying to undermine Freya’s skills as well as her character. They refuse to pass the ball to Freya, make mean comments, put her down in front of the team, exclude her from the group chat and sabotage her play. This fuels Freya and her indomitable spirit, commitment to the team and determination shine through. To make life more complicated for Freya, Val and Milly are also in Freya’s class and do not make life at school pleasant for Freya.
While challenges seem to abound, Freya does strike up unlikely friendships. She spends a lot of her spare time with an older girl, Eva at Vinegar Girls, the café where her Mum works. Eva is an extrovert; enjoys a chat and knows a movie quote that relates to any situation. The girls at school who play netball are kind to Eva so she spends lunch hours with them. Jovial Ashok, the apartment manager looks out for Freya, he knows how to make her smile and they enjoy each other’s company. Then there’s Spicey, a mouse, who Freya deeply cares for. She also shares her feelings with Audrey, the Skipping Girl sign and Freya finds comfort and solace in her as the story progresses.
Audrey, the Skipping Girl, in the most surprising and dramatic turn of events, becomes the catalyst for Freya to face her fears, use her compassion to break down the insecurities in one of the mean girls and become a hero in her new community. Freya never wavers from being kind and this is ultimately what turns her enemies into allies and helps her find in place in Abbotsford.
A diverse cast of characters are included in this story and many readers will see themselves represented and for others this book serves as a window into diverse ways of being. Freya was conceived via IVF, her Mum and Dad are friends, partners in life, not married and live in separate houses and Ashok is diabetic, he hails from India, studied in London and moved to Australia with his family.