The Summer I Learned to Fly by Dana Reinhardt is a coming of age novel set in the summer of 1986 on the central California coast. Thirteen-year-old Drew Solo, sometimes known as Birdie, and sometimes called Robin, doesn't have very many friends her own age. Drew likes to spend her spare time at her mother's cheese shop, hanging out with a woman she considers an aunt, an older teen on whom she has a tremendous crush, and her pet rat.
Her father died when Drew was very small, and she clings to a book of lists about himself that he left for her, sometimes seeking guidance from his words. Her relationship with her mother is a bit strained, as Drew learns that her mother is hiding something from her. Her only friends are away for the summer (not that she really misses them anyway). But when she meets an unusual boy called Emmett Crane, Drew feels an immediate sense of connection. Her friendship with Emmett changes her forever.
One style thing that I didn't like in The Summer I Learned to Fly was the way it starts out as a book that an adult is writing, looking back nostalgically on the long-ago events of a childhood summer. This gave me a bit of a feeling like the book was aimed at other adults who were kids in 1986, rather than at kids themselves. I would be interested to see how kids react to this (the scene is set on the first page). The 1986 setting is, in general, fairly subtle, more noticeable for what isn't there (computers, cell phones, Internet) than what is (rainbow shoelaces, an economic recession).
But that's a minor point. The Summer I Learned to Fly is filled with small mysteries and poignant moments. The short chapters feature cryptic titles like "mom, a vanishing act" and "absolutely, positively fine". The first-person narrative jumps around a bit, especially early in the book, as Drew fills in necessary backstory. Stylistically, this book reminded me a little bit of Please Ignore Vera Dietz, though it's not as complex.It took me a little while to get into the book, but the end brought a satisfied little tear to my eye.
Here are a few quotes, to give you a feel for Reinhardt's writing:
"I was the only youngish person she knew in her life, and so I received the fully bounty of her auntlike energy." (Page 22)
"I would never be that girl. I would never swim where there was nobody certified to rescue me from an undertow. I'd never jump into any body of water fully clothed. I doubted that any boy would ever take my hand like that, run beside me, and then pull me toward him into the waves, laughing, grabbing on tighter." (Page 95)
"We all have our stories. The ones we're told or read as children that never leave us. For me, that story is Charlotte's Web, and it always struck me how Emmett mentioned it the very first night we met in the alley, as if he'd removed a big fat crayon from his pocket and drawn a line connecting us together." (Page 153)
Dana Reinhard is a writer who sometimes makes me nod in recognition, and sometimes makes me see things from a different perspective. (See also my reviews of her novels A Brief Chapter in my Impossible Life and How To Build A House.) The Summer I Learned to Fly is a quick yet thoughtful read, with just enough mystery to keep kids turning the pages. Recommended for readers more interested in real human connection than popularity and fitting in. Although Drew is thirteen, she seems younger, and I would say that kids (particularly girls) about to start middle school, or in middle school already, would be the ideal audience. Recommended.
Publisher: Wendy Lamb Books (@RandomHouseKids)
Publication Date: July 12, 2011
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher
© 2011 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.