Annemarie Wilcox, or "Shug" (as in Sugar) as her mom calls her, is twelve years old and in love with her oldest friend (Mark) the boy she's grown up riding bikes with and whose mother she often wishes were her own. But when junior high starts her new feelings toward Mark, as well as the new social structure that comes with her new school, makes things so much more complicated than they used to be. With her mom's drinking, her parents' fighting, nothing is as easy as it used to be.
It's been a while since I've read a really good middle grade novel and Shug reminded me of all the things I love about the genre. The book is not about just one thing. It's not Annemarie's crush on Mark or her struggle with the popular girls or her relationship with her mother or the faultlines that have begun to show in her family. This book is about all of that, along with Annemarie's insecurity -- the kind that often comes when you're on the brink of teenagedom and everything is changing. Set in a small, Southern town, the setting gives Annemarie's story a more old-fashioned feel, as if it could be taking place decades ago instead of in the 21st century. This, I liked. It may just be me, but middle grade is one genre where I love when it seems a bit older, a bit timeless. Most of my favorite MG books have been unmoored in this way.
Annemarie is an authentic pre-teen whose struggles with herself and those around her ring true. This book takes a simple approach to some serious subjects such as family dysfunction and alcoholism. There were some heartbreaking moments that, because of how they were written, felt neither heavy nor trite. They fit.
For many of the storylines in this book, there's no neatly wrapped-up ending. There's a sense of moving on, but nothing that you'd traditionally think of as closure, but that works here because the problems Annemarie is facing are life's problems and they aren't ones that are resolved yet. This is a book I wouldn't hesitate to recommend to young readers.