Alliy Condie’s Summerlost is a beautifully wise story about friendship, loss, and healing – the kind of story that makes you appreciate, once again, how difficult it is to grow up and figure out this stuff called life…especially when so much of it, the big things and the small, is beyond one’s control. As Cedar Lee, the main character in Summerlost observes: It’s not right that something so big, your entire life, depends on a million tiny things.
Here’s the publisher’s synopsis:
It’s the first real summer since the accident that killed Cedar’s father and younger brother, Ben. Cedar and what’s left of her family are returning to the town of Iron Creek for the summer. They’re just settling into their new house when a boy named Leo, dressed in costume, rides by on his bike. Intrigued, Cedar follows him to the renowned Summerlost theatre festival. Soon, she not only has a new friend in Leo and a job working concessions at the festival, she finds herself surrounded by mystery. The mystery of the tragic, too-short life of the Hollywood actress who haunts the halls of Summerlost. And the mystery of the strange gifts that keep appearing for Cedar.
Cedar’s relationship with Ben, who appears to have been on the spectrum, is written about so poignantly. Clearly, life with Ben required the family to work together to make sure that Ben was able to get through his days as best as possible; as much as the family loved Ben, life with him involved making sacrifices and meeting his needs first. Although I have read many middle grade novels from the perspective of a main character with special needs, Summerlost is one of the rare books to consider the perspective of siblings: what are the adjustments they must make? how do they experience childhood and adolescence? Ally Condie writes about this experience so thoughtfully; Cedar mourns for her brother, and also for her family, for the especially hard work they had to do together to be a family:
I mean, we set up our whole lives around him. All the therapy. All the going to restaurants during the not-busy hours so that he wouldn’t freak out in a crowd. All the humoring him when he wanted to wear his Halloween costume for months at a time. We listened to him say the same things over and over again when he got stressed out. We glared at strangers when they gave Ben dirty looks. It was hard sometimes but we all did it, for years…I loved him. I finally loved him again, and then he was gone.
I also loved that Cedar’s friendship with Leo was just that – a friendship. So often, middle grade books dwell so much on crushes and boy-girl misunderstandings, but Summerlost lets kids know that boys and girls can be good friends who help each other sort through the muddle of adolescence, that they actually need each other for this process. As Cedar comes to realize, she did not have to be Leo’s girlfriend, she could be his person :
With Leo I’d fallen into another kind of like. I couldn’t wait to tell him stuff and I loved hearing him laugh at my jokes and I loved laughing at his jokes. He made me feel like I had a spot in the world.
It felt as if Leo and I could like each other all our lives…
He was my person too.
Summerlost is one of those sad yet sweet stories – funny, moving, and unforgettable. My sixth graders will love it.