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Just Juice by Karen Hesse

Just JuiceThis is a story about a girl who cannot read. It is also about a father who cannot read and a family who struggles to keep food on the table. It is powerful and moving – a must read for those at the chapter book level.

Juice is nine years old but carries the responsibility of an adult. She cares for her younger siblings, her pregnant and diabetic mother, and is the constant companion of her father, who has been out of work for quite some time. They live in a very small Appalachian mountain town. Juice is supposed to attend school with her two older sisters, but prefers to stay with her father, much to the dismay of her teacher and the truant officer who looks for Juice regularly ()bringing her to school when he manages to fin her). To complicate matters, not only does Juice feel obligated to stay with her father and help him make money fixing things, she doesn’t want to go to school because she struggles with reading. The anxiety of being discovered as a girl who cannot read keeps Juice away from her teacher and her classroom. She constantly worries about embarrassment in the classroom. She does not realize for awhile that her own father does not know how to read. Slowly she begins to see the clues about Pa’s difficulty with reading. She and Pa stand looking at an important letter, knowing that they must read it but neither of them can make sense of the letters. Juice’s older sister, Markey, reads the letter, and soon the family knows that their money situation is worse than anyone realized; they must come up with a large sum of money to pay the property taxes or they will lose their house. Geneva, the home health nurse nearby, comes by regularly to check on Ma and bring groceries provided by the government. But the family needs money to pay for the taxes. This is a burden to Pa and Juice, as they search for a way to provide income for the family.

Important Quotations for Discussion

” ‘You can’t read, Pa?’

Pa shakes his head.

He looks so hammered down lonely, like he has finally fallen through that black hole I’ve been holding him back from all this time. But I can’t let him go down that hole alone. I look at Lulu. Her face is knotted up, and I know I’m about to be tangled in the same snarl with what I have to say next, but I can’t let Pa take it all hisself. It’s too much.

‘I can’t read, either, Lulu,’ I say.” (page 119-120) *page numbers refer to Scholastic edition

Literacy is a central issue in this novel, as Juice and Pa cannot read, which has devastating consequences for the family. When Pa receives the tax letter, he cannot read it, and decides to ignore it rather than admit he cannot read. When Markey finally reads the letter for him, he is embarrassed, just as Juice is embarrassed at school when she cannot read with her fellow classmates. This humiliation is painful for both Juice and Pa. Once Ma finally reads the letters concerning the property taxes and the Juice’s attendance at school, she heads into town to resolve the problems. When she returns with a plan, she announces that everyone in the family will learn to read and the girls will all go to school.

“The thing is, I don’t have to be a famous doctor or anything fancy like that to be happy. All I have to be is Juice, just Juice. And that’s enough.” (pg. 138)

Quietly, this novel allows Juice to be herself and claim her own place in the family. Juice is torn between school and family, knowing that he current decision to stay out of school and help her father is not going to help her learn to read. Her sisters devise ways to help Juice, and make letter cards for her to study. But she also knows that she needs to be in school, though she is unhappy every time she goes to class. This quotation is an excellent starting point for discussing the moral of the story, Juice’s lessons, and what is important in life to Juice and her family.

Discussion Questions

  • Why is literacy important in Juice’s family? How does it affect the family when Pa and Juice cannot read? How do each of the family members feel about reading?
  • Why does Juice dislike going to school? How could her classmates help Juice? How could her teacher help? What ideas do you have for helping somebody who doesn’t know how to read and is afraid of embarrassment?
  • Juice’s family does not have a lot of money. What are some of the things that they do to help each other and survive without money?
  • How does the family celebrate Christmas? What does Christmas mean to each family member? What values are important in the Faulstitch family?
  • Juice learns many lessons through the course of the novel. What are the lessons that Juice learns? Of course, she is not the only one who learns lessons in the Faulstitch family. What lessons do Ma and Pa learn? Juice’s sisters?


Scholastic Discussion GuideĀ 

Publishers Weekly Book Review

“How A Children’s Writer Survives the Newbery Award” with Karen Hesse (Institute of Children’s Literature)


Interested in more Karen Hesse books? Head over to my blog post on The Music of the Dolphins, another great book!

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