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An Occasionally Happy Family

4.44  ·  Rating details ·  78 ratings  ·  34 reviews
Gordon Korman meets The Great Outdoors in this funny and moving debut about a boy who goes on a disastrous family vacation (sweltering heat! bear chases!) that ends with a terrible surprise: his dad's new girlfriend.

There are zero reasons for Theo Ripley to look forward to his family vacation. Not only are he, sister Laura, and nature-obsessed Dad going to Big Bend, the le
Hardcover, 224 pages
Published May 18th 2021 by HMH Books for Young Readers
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May 09, 2021 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: middle-grade, humor
You are going to need your tissues when you read this new release from Cliff Burke. You may find yourself laughing and crying within short periods of time. This book has so much heart and just the right amount of sass. Theo and big sister Laura find themselves in Big Bend National Park with their widower dad on the first vacation (grandma's house doesn't count) since their mom died. Dad has a big surprise to unveil -- his new girlfriend Lucrecia. There are some humorous moments as the family att ...more
Ms. Yingling
Mar 23, 2021 rated it really liked it
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Theo is glad that it is summer vacation, but while he friends are either going to robotics camp or dedicating themselves to playing video games, he finds himself roped in to a family camping trip to Big Bend National Park with his dad and older sister Laura. While this is a little better than the family's usual vacation of visiting their grandmother, it's still a lot of hikes in the woods with bugs and high temperatures. Theo's dad, a high school science teacher(w
May 18, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Thank you to NetGalley and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Children’s Book Group for the review copy of An Occasionally Happy Family by Cliff Burke. This book follows Theo, who lives with his dad and sister, Laura, since his mother passed away from cancer two years ago.

Theo is a bright, imaginative middle schooler, who loves to illustrate and write graphic novels that he shares with his friends at school. When his dad announces that they will be going on vacation, he doesn’t really know what to think
Feb 09, 2021 rated it it was amazing
This is one of the funniest books I've read from The21ders, my debut group of MG and YA authors. But there's also a touching undercurrent of sadness running through it.

Heartfelt doesn't begin to describe it.

Thirteen-year-old Theo's mom died two years ago, and he and his dad and his fifteen-year-old sister, Laura, still haven't really talked about it. Then Dad informs the siblings they're embarking on a road trip to go camping in the hottest park in Texas during the hottest part of the summer, w
May 27, 2021 rated it liked it
This was a great look into loss and the family dynamics surrounding it. Two years after their mother dies, Laura and Theo's dad are taking them on a big trip for the summer. They go to Big Bend National Park and during the last portion of their trip, their dad springs a surprise on them. He has invited a "friend" who might be a woman, and he might be dating. As Laura and Theo navigate this new person, feelings fly and all three of them have to deal with their feelings once and for all.

The writi
Lisa Frenkel
Jun 01, 2021 rated it it was amazing
The voice in this book had me from the very start. Two years after the death of his mother, Theo's father decides to take him and his sister on a camping trip in Big Bend. Theo prefers enjoying the great outdoors from the safety of the indoors, so the whole idea does not sit well with him. The witty banter between family members is escalated when Theo's dad reveals that he has a surprise for them at the end of the trip: an introduction to his new girlfriend. Mix in an annoying father/son duo who ...more
Nov 02, 2020 rated it it was amazing
It’s been a long time since I read a book that struck such an absolutely perfect balance between laugh-out-loud funny and achingly heartfelt. In the first few chapters of Cliff Burke’s AN OCCASIONALLY HAPPY FAMILY, you think it’s going to be all humor. And the humor – throughout the book - is so good and so real and so well done, from online reviews of Big Bend National Park to the hilariously awful ‘Leonard Blenard’ and son, to a pair of nudists in a hot spring. But a few chapters in, you get t ...more
Jul 31, 2020 rated it really liked it
I received an electronic ARC from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Children's Book Group through NetGalley.
Theo's family heads off on a surprise family vacation that involves several disasters - major heat wave, bears, interesting campers - and culminates in meeting Dad's girlfriend. Unfortunately, Dad only gave Theo and his sister, Laura, a day to process this. It has been two years since their mom died and they're blindsided. This is a family who doesn't talk about emotions and hides their grief from
Chad Lucas
Nov 26, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This is one of the funniest middle grade books I've read in a while. The whip-smart dialogue and disastrous road-trip antics had me laughing out loud. But it's also a deeply moving story as Theo, his sister and his dad wrestle with grief and their inability to talk to each other as they try to move on with their lives after Theo's mom dies. Theo and Laura's sibling relationship really stands out. A highly worthwhile read. ...more
May 17, 2021 rated it liked it
Let me be honest, I had to read this book. After all, don’t many of us judge a book by its cover? I did. I judged it to be funny and full of relatable incidents. And that it was.

Theo’s family’s vacation usually consisted of visiting his grandma, but this year his dad had other plans for them. Theo and his sister have been out of sorts over life lately. Though no one has said anything, it’s probably because they are still trying to deal with their mother’s death, which occurred two years ago. The
Oct 19, 2020 rated it really liked it
Thank you to Edelweiss+ and the publisher for an eARC of this book.

Theo isn't sure what to expect when his dad announces that he's planned a surprise vacation for him and his sister, Laura, to Big Bend National Park. He isn't thrilled about the idea of the long drive with limited electronics time, or doing any of that outdoor camping stuff, but those things end up being the least of his worries. Theo goes from one unpleasant situation to another (including sweltering heat, his dad's new hiker "f
Nov 21, 2020 rated it it was amazing
First and foremost AN OCCASIONALLY HAPPY FAMILY by Cliff Burke is funny and warmhearted and honest. With pitch-perfect dialogue, Burke plumbs the depth of a family set adrift by loss and mourning. That might not sound like the makings of a laugh out loud read, but this family road trip supplies enough depth and discovery to make room for both the sadness and the laughter.

Theo is stuck going on yet another family vacation, this one to the Texas desert in the middle of July. And the surprise Dad p
Apr 28, 2021 rated it really liked it
There’s a certain sense to the writing and some of the plot beats here that this is a book written by an adult for children. Most middle grade is, certainly, but the tone here leans a bit heavily into “very mature young narrator.” It is, however, quite funny and enjoyable, at least from my perspective, with characters who come through clearly and a fast pace. I did also feel as if the story was a bit contained, with not much time to settle into what the everyday is like for this family and the v ...more
Sara Thompson
May 29, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Thirteen year old Theo is starting his summer off with a road trip to Big Bend National Park with his dad and older sister, Laura. Dad, who's turned into an outdoorsman since the death of his wife two years ago, is super hyped about the trip and a surprise he's planned for the end of it. To Theo and Laura's horror, the surprise is dad's new girlfriend. For a guy who has difficulty discussing the loss of their mom, Theo and Laura are less than pleased.

Theo and Laura are completely relatable as bi
Nic Cho
Sep 24, 2020 rated it really liked it
Great at its highs but fell flat a few times. Theo's reactions and emotions were spot on throughout the story and mirrored a lot of my experiences making it a believable story/experience. Laura and Theo's banter was fun to read through but I felt some of Laura's conversations were forced and unnatural, to me anyways.

The emotions ramp up when dad's biiiiiig surprise (new girlfriend) shows up and when Theo and Laura were only given a day to process this, it went as expected, terribly. Moral of th
With thanks to NetGalley for an early copy in return for an honest review.

One of my favorite types of books is one where I am transported to another place. I like to call it "Traveling Through the Pages." This book definitely transported me to Big Bend NP in Texas! I really liked the family vacation aspect of the book and liked the dad's family Road Trip Rules (even if the kids didn't like them!). Theo, Laura, and their dad meet a number of interesting characters along their journey and must fac
Terry Jennings
Apr 04, 2021 rated it it was amazing
It is the saddest of books and the funniest of books. Throughout, An Occasionally Happy Family, a book about a young boy trying to cope with the loss of his mother and his confusion at his father’s seeming ability to move on with life, is laugh-out-loud funny. From the accurate portrayal of the relationship between he and his fourteen year old sister, to the adventure with the bird-watching man who threatens to ruin the vacation meant to be a bonding and healing experience for the family. As I r ...more
Eileen Winfrey
Apr 20, 2021 rated it really liked it
Theo (13) and his sister Laura (15) are forced on a family road trip by their father (widowed for two years) to Big Bend National park in the middle of summer so they can surprise meet his new girlfriend.

I absolutely loved the way Laura’s character advocates for herself and determinedly speaks her mind, made me laugh. Poor Theo doesn’t get to say much, but the inner dialogue we get to see as readers is engaging and alternately humorous and sad.

Not recommended for my elementary school library b
May 27, 2021 rated it it was amazing
An Occasionally Happy Family has everything I look for in a novel: it's funny, touching, has spot-on dialogue and intricately drawn characters, and it has consumed my thoughts since I finished it this afternoon. The story is beautifully constructed, and every part adds to the whole. The theme around communication (asking questions without waiting for/ignoring answers, not giving answers when asked questions, or never asking questions to begin with) and the focus on authenticity and self-awarenes ...more
Sam Subity
Oct 29, 2020 rated it it was amazing
An engaging, funny, and poignant debut that strikes just the right balance of addressing a tough topic (the mom's death) while providing plenty of lighter moments of hilarity from being attacked by a bear to a day of board games gone wrong that likely anyone can relate to. If you liked Raina Telgemeier's novel Sisters with its snarky, bickering siblings and disastrous road trip, then this is right up your alley. Finally, I loved watching the family stumble, flail, and hug their way toward dealin ...more
Jenn of The Bookish Society
Apr 22, 2021 rated it it was amazing
I guess I too am part of an occasionally happy family. :) I think all kids will see something of themselves and their family dynamics in this story. Road trips tend to bring out the best and worst in people and this hot camping trip to Big Bend National Park -in the Texas heat is no exception. Add in that this family is still grieving over the loss of their Mom/Wife and things are more complex.

Our In Betweeners Round Table Group will be reading this next Fall.
Jul 27, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Link to the book talk:

Have you experienced a disastrous family vacation or at least part of the vacation was disastrous? I have surely experienced one, however, Theo's vacation has a big twist. Theo is about to meet a new person in his life that could possibly be his step-mother. This book is very funny, it has a strong storyline and has a lot of emotions. Overall, I think this is a great book for middle-grade readers.
Jill Ramig
Apr 27, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: middle-grade, 2021
Hilarious book about a family who doesn't talk about emotions. During a visit to a national park and with the addition of an unexpected visitor they learn to share their feelings and end up better than they started. Kids will relate to family dynamics of sibling squabbles and will enjoy the comedy relief. ...more
May 22, 2021 rated it really liked it
This book is sure to be a hit with the YA audience. Burke's writing moves the story forward swiftly with no dead space. Theo and Laura' dialogue is relatable to brothers and sisters everywhere, and what better way to bring family tension to a head than on an inescapable family vacation. The story promises to keep the reader engaged the entire way no matter their age. ...more
Jun 05, 2021 added it
Middle school readers are going to adore AN OCCASIONALLY HAPPY FAMILY by @cliffburkeauthor. The hilarious dialogue, pitch-perfect voice, and zany side characters will pull them right in, and the tender emotions at the core of this family vacation/grief story will move them deeply. I laughed and cried a lot reading this one, and would especially recommend for ages 10-13!
Aug 23, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: ya, netgalley
Intermittently laugh-out-loud funny and breathtakingly poignant novel suitable for middle school students. There is a sadness and a casual cruelty throughout the work that might upset more sensitive readers. TW: cancer, parent death, extended grief
Lisa McDonald
Nov 12, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: arc, kids-books
This was a wonderful book that I devoured in one sitting! It was a touching book about the grief associated with a mother's passing but it was also laughable throughout much of the book. As a reluctant camper myself, I found myself laughing out loud at some of Theo's predicaments. ...more
Kate Foster
Nov 27, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I loved this! What's actually a pretty emotional book with a sad underlying theme, the voice is sharp and funny, the banter between the family members is real and at times hilarious, and the humor right on my level. Theo's very dry and cynical view of the world makes him the perfect protagonist. ...more
Jun 14, 2021 rated it really liked it
The premise was intriguing, and the execution was alright, but Theo and Laura were incredibly rude. So rude, in fact, that I almost quit gave up on it once or twice. There’s also a couple of uncomfortable scenes, like the part with the nudist French couple. Overall, 3.5 stars, rounded up.
Aug 16, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This is a wonderfully funny and heartfelt book. The characters are realistic and the author writes simply but poignantly. Great for ages 8+.
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Cliff Burke has taught reading and writing in China, Hong Kong, and Texas. Currently, he teaches writing and humanities at a middle school in the Bay Area. "An Occasionally Happy Family" is his first novel.

Visit him online at

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