Looking for a sweet middle grade story about a large family full of rambunctious characters? Well, that’s the Vanderbeekers series to a tee. Chronicling the adventures of a family of seven, Mama, Papa, Jessie, Isa, Hyacinth, Oliver, and Laney, the Vanderbeeker series spends each book centering a primary plot point that each Vanderbeeker sibling provides point of view on. In the fifth installment of this series, The Vanderbeekers Make a Wish, the siblings gather details on their family’s history to create the best fortieth birthday present possible for their father.
This book begins with plans gone awry, as Papa has to cancel the camping trip he and Oliver long looked forward to in order to help a close friend who lives in Indiana plan a funeral for their mother. Already smarting from this disappointment, Oliver is further perturbed by the unannounced entry of his mother’s parents—his only living grandparents—who never seem to be satisfied with the lives of their grandchildren. As the week wears on, each Vanderbeeker kid comes to understand a different element of their family history—on either side of their father’s Black, Harlem-born and raised or their mother’s Chinese-American heritage. Spurred to spend more time learning about their father’s family after finding a letter addressed to him from their deceased grandfather, the Vanderbeekers chase down clues to figure out what their grandfather had planned for Papa’s college graduation gift, before his untimely demise. They are assisted by their mother’s cousin, Aunt Penny, who joined their grandparents on their visit from California, and other residents of their apartment building, who we get to know more about in earlier books. After Laney follows the night time movements of her visiting grandfather, she gains insight into some family practices that she later shares with her siblings.
What sticks out most about this story is how well in tune the Vanderbeeker children are with their Harlem community and the level of independence their parents provide them because of their trust in the community and the children themselves. This dynamic makes for a very charming series where the cold reputation of New Yorkers is given a side-eye as the Vanderbeekers find warmth with nearly every person they interact with. As a New York City transplant, it is always fun to see the everyday hustle and bustle of the city residents revealed as the face we wear to make it through the day. You never know what interesting stories or helpful guidance you can expect from the people in the subway car beside you unless you engage them with inquisitivity. I also loved the reticence the Harlem-raised Vanderbeeker children held towards visiting the Brooklyn Bridge for their grandparents as interborough travel is a pain when you’ve cultivated the life and comfort you like in the area where you live. Conversely, it is the siblings’ willingness to learn the stories of their forebears and of those around them that lend to the central theme of the story—by embarking on each of these adventures and engaging with those around them, the Vanderbeekers carry the stories of their family and friends with them, long after these people are no longer around.
I recommend this series and book for anyone—child or adult—who loves the feeling of being drawn into a sprawling family with limited means but a lot of heart (and pets). This is a quick read that is sure to bring a little joy to its reader.