After Ever After is the sequel to Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie, and picks up about seven or eight years later; the first book ends with the end (more or less) of Jeffrey’s cancer treatment when he’s six, but this begins as he struggles with eighth grade, and the aftereffects of cancer. (Warning: spoiler about a plot point way down at the bottom of the entry…)
The cancer treatment has left him with a bad limp and poor coordination (and consequently a tendency to put on weight) and difficulties learning, as the treatments affect both his memory and his ability to absorb information, particularly math. His best friend is Tad, also a cancer survivor though a decidedly more sarcastic one than Jeffrey and with more physical disabilities–he is unable to walk for more than a few steps. The two do genuinely like each other but stick together in no small part because they’ve both survived cancer. Eighth grade starts off awkwardly from a social standpoint, with a gorgeous girl who’s transferred in from California who not only finds Jeffrey cute but has a surname falling immediately before his alphabetically…she therefore sits right in front of him in several of his classes. Not the best place to be if you’re already having trouble with learning math. There’s another monkey wrench thrown into Jeffrey’s coping ability: Steven, his older brother and mainstay during the cancer treatment, has taken off midway through his own college studies to find himself by drumming his way through Africa.
This math disability proves even more problematic. It’s bad enough that Jeffrey’s father is an accountant and has trouble understanding how anyone could not get math. The state of New Jersey, as have many other states in reality, has instituted standardized tests which all students must pass in the fourth, eighth, and eleventh grades before being permitted to pass on and up to the next academic year…and Jeffrey failed the first practice test. Badly. The school sends home a letter to his parents, which Jeffrey feeds down the garbage disposal. This reprieve lasts only until the school calls home to confirm details of the practice sessions with the Alpers; Jeffrey is grounded, signed up for the school’s practices AND continues with Tad’s informal tutoring sessions. (The two boys had made a pact earlier in the year: Tad tutors Jeffrey in math while Jeffrey helps Tad with strength training in order to walk across the stage at their graduation ceremony.
It’s hard to do a sequel that’s as good as the original, and there are a few issues with After Ever After–starting with it follows pretty much the same language patterns, sentence structure and plot development as its predecessor: the first was Steven’s eighth grade year and the second is Jeffrey’s, but they both struggle with the problem of understanding girls, work on the same English teacher’s journal entries, discuss their issues with the same guidance counselor (candy hearts and all). That close a similarity isn’t necessarily a problem for the intended audience, mind. Kids in the tween age/reading range, the one at which I’m guessing most of Sonnenblick’s writing is aimed, often do go for books which read similarly to something they’ve liked in the past.
In this case, though, Sonnenblick was right to do a sequel; all too often, merely “curing” the cancer isn’t the end of the person’s health and mental issues. Remission is a very real concern and probability for many people. So are the aftereffects of all the drugs, surgeries and radiation treatments; “chemo brain” may sound a joke to people who haven’t undergone cancer treatment but quite often people do end up with erratic short/long term memory and learning issues. To cap things off, people who haven’t been through this themselves all too often have no idea how to respond in a way that’s sympathetic and realistic, but not gooey. Jeffrey struggles with all three, and Steven with how to balance his desire to support his brother, whom he does love, with his own need to branch out into his own individual life, undefined by being “brother of a cancer survivor”.
I’d recommend it for–well, “kids who are themselves going through cancer” would be too obvious and too limited group. Siblings of a cancer survivor, anyone who’s going to school with a kid who’s survived just about any catastrophically life threatening illness, and even parents of those kids. “Teachers make good writers.” would be too much of a blanket statement, but the fact that Sonnenblick’s taught eighth grade shows. Overall, it’s a lighthearted comedy, but Deeply Serious Tomes about cancer scares some readers off.
Normally, I would try to avoid spoilers; I’ll make an exception here: Tad dies, close to the end of the book. He was always the physically sicker of the two boys, and he develops a second related type of cancer.