"If It Makes You Happy" Is a Down-to-Earth Coming-of-Age Summer Vacation

The summer before her fall semester at college, Winnie is happily spending her time at Misty Haven, working at her grandmother’s restaurant, Goldeen’s, and spending time with her ungirlfriend, Kara. When she is unexpectedly crowned Summer Queen at Misty Haven’s traditional matchmaking event, she is forced out of her comfort zone by the spotlight, obligations, and the heart-on-your-sleeves honesty of the Summer King. Now, Winnie must confront her fears in order to become the best version of herself.

One of the best things about this book is its Black, fat, dark-skinned, and queer female protagonist, Winnie. A character like this is rare in young adult fiction; as far as I’m aware, the only other character who comes close is Alice, the protagonist of Claire Kann’s first book, Let’s Talk About Love. A key difference between Alice and Winnie is that Alice doesn’t experience fatmisia like Winnie does. While the fatmisia displayed by doctors and some family members in this novel may be triggering for some, it also demonstrates the unfortunate reality that Black dark-skinned fat girls live in. However, Winnie isn’t solely defined by her race or her weight; she’s funny, loving, and stubborn, too. In fact, the latter two traits result in an emotionally satisfying character arc.

In addition to Winnie, the rest of the cast of characters is also memorable. Winnie’s young brother, Winston, shows promising potential as a chef and is snarky and caring. Winne’s cousin Sam is well-meaning and loving but also lacks self-awareness at times. Winne’s grandmother makes the strongest impression of all the characters due to her complexity as an overly controlling family member who is also a resourceful businesswoman. In addition to standing well on their own, each of the characters helps Winnie grow as a person.

Rounding out the cast is Winnie’s flawed but thoughtful queerplatonic partner, Kara, and the sweet love interest, Dallas. A queer platonic relationship is a relationship that doesn’t fit the norms of romance or friendship and is rare in novels. As a result, to see it depicted in such a down-to-earth and educational way is wonderful. The way Kara and Dallas are handled in terms of their relationships to Winnie and how each of them figures out what they want from the others is well done.

In addition to the main protagonist and the other characters, the setting for this book is absolutely enchanting. The cozy atmosphere and quirky characters reminded me of the town from the TV show Gilmore Girls, except with more diversity. Goldeen’s is a restaurant I would like to visit for the characters and the food, while Kara’s baked goods are also enticing since they are described in such a mouthwatering way. Winnie’s custom-designed outfits are so creative and enhance the magic that she already possesses. 

Another quirk of this book that was fun is the myriad pop culture references littered throughout—something that carries over from Let’s Talk About Love. One particularly notable moment occurs when Winston, Dallas, and Winnie watch a Lord of the Rings film and have a discussion about Black characters in fantasy. It’s a nice touch that allows Winston and Dallas to warm up to each other after meeting for the first time.

If there is any flaw in this book, it is that the pacing may be slow for some. The book takes its time to tell Winnie’s story and develop her relationships to the other characters, but this allows the reader to gain a deep appreciation for the characters. Another minor flaw is that there is a question brought up that doesn’t seem to get an answer. However, the lack of clarity doesn’t ruin the enjoyment of the book.

All in all, Claire Kann’s If It Makes You Happy is a down-to-earth summer story filled with personal growth and complex relationships. It shows that sometimes, doing what’s best for you and the ones you love means getting out of your comfort zone and creating the space you need to grow. It is emotionally affecting and poignant—a new summer classic for a new generation.

The Afro YA promotes black young adult authors and YA books with black characters, especially those that influence Pennington, an aspiring YA author who believes that black YA readers need diverse books, creators, and stories so that they don’t have to search for their experiences like she did.

Latonya Pennington is a poet and freelance pop culture critic. Their freelance work can also be found at PRIDE, Wear Your Voice magazine, and Black Sci-fi. As a poet, they have been published in Fiyah Lit magazine, Scribes of Nyota, and Argot magazine among others.