Wolff, Virginia Euwer. MAKE LEMONADE.
New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1993.ISBN 0805022287.
In order to earn money to pay for college, fourteen-year-old LaVaughn takes a job babysitting for Jolly, a seventeen-year-old
unwed mother. As their relationship develops into a deep friendship, LaVaughn’s steady support helps Jolly make a better
life for herself and for her children. Jolly, in turn, helps LaVaughn clarify her own values and goals.
LaVaughn is a powerful, but believable character in this complex novel.
She has set high goals for herself, namely getting away from the projects where she lives. She knows that her only shot at
making it out is to go to college. “This word COLLEGE is in my house,/ and you have to walk around it in the rooms/
like furniture.” (p. 9) Her mother has told her that getting to college
will require two things: hard work and money. She works hard at school and always completes her homework. LaVaughn describes
her mother’s views on homework as “a completely required thing/ like a vaccination.” (p. 4) Her desire to earn money for college is what initially interests her in taking the job babysitting for
Jolly, but ultimately, it is her compassion. As she thinks of the reasons why she should take the job, she thinks of “that
sideways look of Jolly’s eyes/ like a car will come out of nowhere & run her down” and “that sound in
Jolly’s voice,/ that ‘I can’t’ she says over again.” Her compassion for Jolly is also what keeps
her there even when Jolly looses her job and can’t pay her. LaVaughn’s mother is a strong force in her life. She
describes her mother as being big, “I don’t mean fat. She’s average, you could say./ It’s a bigness
about her she got some way,/ not a bigness she could diet off.” (p. 80) She also talks about how her mother’s
“attention span that goes on for years” (p.12) keeps her focused on her goal to go to college.
Jolly is a perfect foil for LaVaughn. Her life is a mess, figuratively and literally. Her apartment is disorderly
and it smells. LaVaughn describes Jolly in this way: “Jolly is quick with just-okay./ If it’s not all the way
done but partway/ Jolly says that’s good enough…. Just part way is how come the high chair and the floor/ are
so disgusting./ I like things all the way done./All the way is my ticket out of here/ not to end up like Jolly.” (p.
130) Jolly also has what LaVaughn calls her ‘shame style’ or ‘Underdrive,’ where she shifts into a
mode of appearing not to care and being ‘above it all.’ She is a very scared and lost child with two children of her own, afraid that if she asks for help, someone
will deem her unworthy and take her children away. With these two diverse characters, Wolff creates a very credible relationship
where both girls grow and learn from each other. Jolly realizes that it is okay to accept help from others, and in the process,
learns how to begin to turn the lemons, or bad breaks, she’s been given in life into lemonade. LaVaughn takes the vague
idea that she wants to go to college, and makes some concrete plans for getting there.
This book offers readers a credible “slice of life” for many young people growing up in the ‘projects.’
In any urban setting across the United States, there are young people just like LaVaughn who aspire to be the first in their
family to go to college. There are also many young, single mothers like Jolly who have very little education and are barely surviving. Wolff provides a hopeful resolution to the story without resorting to a happily-ever-after
ending. It takes a great deal of work for LaVaughn to convince Jolly that the Mom’s Up Program isn’t like welfare,
but eventually she does. As the story ends, Jolly is beginning to ‘take hold’ as LaVaughn’s mother says.
She is making good progress in her courses, where she learns skills to not only change her life, but which help her save the
life of her daughter, Jilly. During her time with Jolly, LaVaughn’s resolve to make it
to a better life is strengthened. She is planning her schedule for the following school year and still has her mind
set on college and on possibly becoming a teacher.
Although this story portrays the harsh realities of unwed parenthood and the struggle for a better life, the underlying
message is one of hope found in the saying, “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” Wolff avoids being didactic
and does not allow the message to become more important than the story. It flows naturally as the story unfolds, first as
we see LaVaughn’s mother work hard to make a good home for LaVaughn after the death of her husband, and then when Jolly
joins the Mom’s Up Program. Jolly’s source of inspiration to ‘take
hold’ comes from a story told in one of her classes which illustrates the ‘make lemonade’ saying. As she
shares the story with LaVaughn, we see her resolve to take the lemons in her life and make lemonade for her little family.
The writing style is a rhythmic open verse, broken into natural phrases. Told from LaVaughn’s point of view,
the poetic form models the speech patterns and thoughts of a teenager. This is a book of hope and triumph that will appeal
to junior and senior high school students.