So. After Ever After picks up eight years after Drums. Jeffrey is now an eighth grader and in remission. The story flashes back, briefly to grade 4, when Jeffrey, the cancer kid, gets buddied up with Tad, the new student, who hobbles in on crutches, is bald and surprise, has cancer. Where Jeffrey is positive and hopeful, always striving to live up to the spaghetti dinners and other fund raisers held in his honor, Tad is, well, blunt. When Jeffrey whispers that he had cancer too, Tad, "looks at me like I'm a particularly loathsome slice of school-lunch meat loaf and says, "Wow, congratulations! What do you want, a medal?" Nonetheless, the two become best friends.
The next chapter, entitled, The End, fast-forwards to Jeffrey's graduation, then we settle in to Jeffrey's narration of his eighth grade year. It turns out he has Miss Palma (Steven's eighth grade English teacher) as well and that they will be journalling often. His first topic is "The Most Annoying Thing in the World." That's easy for Jeff; it's having cancer. Officially, he's in remission, but that doesn't erase the fear that one day, the cancer might return. It doesn't erase the fact that his family is still paying off the crushing debt that his treatment incurred. It doesn't erase the fact that the long term side effects of strong chemotherapy has left some mental and physical impairments for Jeffrey to deal with. On top of everything, Jeffrey is also mourning the absence of his "perfect" brother, Steven, who has decided to take a leave of absence from college, his girlfriend, Annette, and the family to drum his way around Africa.
Sonnenblick masterfully avoids the maudlin by leavening the story with plenty of humor. Just as he nailed all the medical stuff in Drums, and he nails it here as well, but he also gently reminds the reader that life for cancer survivors is tough after the hysteria of the fundraisers dies down and the last casserole is delivered. I loved the way he structured After Ever After similarly to Drums, Girls and Dangerous Pie, but then made it totally Jeffrey's story. I loved Steven's being physically absent, but oh-so-present in Jeffrey's thoughts. I loved the cynical Tad and their friendship, which had a Yin and Yang quality, but was deep and true. I loved Jeffrey's budding relationship with Lindsey, the new girl from California. And I loved how Sonnenblick, a former teacher himself, absolutely skewers state mandated testing. (If you missed his brilliant op-ed piece in School Library Journal awhile back, take a look at this adaptation of the piece.)
I tried so hard not to swallow this one whole. I could only manage two sittings. There are moments of hilarity, but you will cry - often. I lost track of how many times, but I know it was twice before I reached the halfway point. If you do not cry, you have no heart. It simultaneously made me want to turn back and start again on page one and dig out my well worn copy of Drums and reread that.
After Ever After is due out in February, 2010. I look forward to purchasing multiple copies for myself and to give as gifts, as well as for my library. I also love the cover, btw.