This book was quite difficult to track down. I ordered it from a seller on eBay, only to receive a picture book based on the TV show. When I checked the ISBNs of other copies, they were the ISBNs of that other book as well. So something is off in the great internet database of obscure 1980s children's lit. Some sellers that seemed to have the right book had it priced around $250. I was intrigued, not insane! I think some sellers must use some sort of auto-pricing algorithm that factors in the scarcity of a book, because no rational person would think anyone would pay that much for this book. Anyway, I found a seller offering it for $15, and now see several more copies at under $20, so sanity has struck.
So, was it worth the effort? Yes. Yes it was. Because I LOVED the Punky Brewster TV show when I was a kid. I taped all the episodes when they first aired on Betamax, and watched them over and over. I was also a big fan of The Babysitters Club book series. Why is that relevant? Because Ann Matthews is Ann M. Martin, the author of that series. And her skill at writing for middle grade readers is evident in this chapter book. She also does a great job of reflecting the characters from the TV show.
Earlier this year, I read Paperback Crush by Gabrielle Moss, which pointed out that in the 1980s, juvenile novels about going to summer camp were huge. And this novel picks up on that trend. Punky and her friends Cherie, Margaux and Alan are all going away to summer camp. Almost every chapter begins with a letter Punky writes home about what she did that day, and each day has a fun new camp activity--horseback riding, rafting, a skit for Parents' Weekend, an overnight hike. It made we wish I'd gone to summer camp (though I did do Girl Scout camp, they were just weekend trips.)
Of course, a novel needs a conflict, and this one works well with the character. The premise of the Punky Brewster TV show is that Punky's mother abandoned her in a grocery store. She ends up squatting in an empty apartment where Henry, the curmudgeonly building supervisor, finds her and becomes her foster father. The novel plays off her fear of abandonment, and she becomes homesick and worries that Henry will realize his life is better without her and not want her back. This is a plot that works better in a world before cell phones and texting, as her only means of communication is letters. It fits her character, and young readers will identify with Punky's feelings of homesickness, if not her specific situation.
The book has black and white illustrations throughout that are accurate to the actors from the TV show. If there was one flaw, it's that it seems Matthews wasn't familiar with Margaux, who doesn't have much personality in the book, but was a wealthy and slightly snobbish girl on the show. There are two scenes where all of Punky's bunkies are listed, and Margaux is missing, even though she's clearly a part of the group. I don't think I'd have noticed had it been one of the characters original to the book, but as one of the main recurring characters on the TV show, her absence was noticeable. Still, this was a fun nostalgic read, like a bonus episode of the show.
Now, my bigger challenge is finding the other Punky Brewster novel. It's so obscure, I can't even find a photo of the cover. There are a handful of copies, but they're irrationally expensive. I even wondered if the book was actually published, or if it was cancelled pre-publication, but there's a reference in this book that seems to align with the plot description of that book that I found on-line, indicating this is the second of the two books. So it's out there. I do like a book challenge...within reason.