Good tales of grief: a review of “Summerlost” and “History is All You Left Me”

December 04, 2017

(Originally posted on my old book review blog, HilliterateBlog!)

Hi, book loving humans! I'm back from a NaNoWriMo-induced hiatus and feeeelin' fiiiine. Well, tired and fine. If you missed it on my social media, I won! This means (~humble brag~) that I completed a 50,000 word draft of a novel during the month of November, which I kind of can't believe is a thing this procrastinator/perfectionist did. While the draft is super messy and in need of a ton of work before it ever meets another set of eyes (IF it ever does), I am putting it aside for now and getting back to reading and writing about books! YAY!

While I have all this positivity and enthusiasm going, I'm going to do the natural thing and talk about a couple of YA novels having to do with death. Yay?...?? But seriously, these books are two of the best I've read recently and I'm eager to share. So buckle up and get your tissues ready.

The first, Summerlost by Ally Condie, is classified as middle grades fiction. I can't say I've read a lot of middle grades in the past few years, but Condie's latest made me want to change that pattern. There is something so pure and special about the way this story is told for younger readers; everything is laid out plain, no fancy vocabulary or unnecessary depth for the sake of being deep, if that makes sense. Condie writes the way a real kid would think, and I found that so refreshing as an adult reader so often met with prose that I have to pick apart for meaning (not that I don't love doing that, too, tbh). Summerlost tells the story of 12 year-old Cedar, who recently lost her father and younger brother in a car accident. With her mother and surviving littlest brother, she is in a new house away from her hometown for the summer and in the beginning, she is none too thrilled about it. She is lonely and the dynamic with her remaining family members is strained and awkward. Before long, she finds a job at a local theater's Shakespeare-themed "Summerlost Festival" — yes, they hire 12 year-olds to work concessions and other odd jobs, just go with it — and becomes friends with a boy named Leo. He ropes Cedar into his adventures around town, often led by his own fascination with a late, mysterious, local actress, and she finds herself enjoying things again while also dealing with the guilt that comes from being happy after loss. Along the way, readers also see the evolution of Cedar's relationship with her mother and brother as they each face (or don't face) their grieving process in different ways.

I found Summerlost to be a sweet, poignant depiction of a family moving forward through tragedy, as seen by a bright and relatable young girl. While I was fortunate not to experience such loss as a child, I can see how this book would still have been important to me and to kids from all walks of life due to its handling of emotions. Through Cedar's observations and thoughts, as well of those we see from her family, readers are shown that it is okay to be sad, confused, frustrated, or any of the other difficult things we feel at times. It is healthy to talk about it. Condie helps to normalize the inner struggle of grief and related experiences, things that to kids and adults alike feel distinctly abnormal. I really appreciate how she made this kind of story and protagonist accessible to kids while also making it a truly enjoyable read for all ages. Highly recommend Summerlost!

In the same week I read Summerlost, I decided to destroy my emotions further with History is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera. This is the first novel I've read by Silvera and now I have to read allll the others because wow, amazing. History is told from the  perspective of a teenage protagonist, Griffin, in both past and present. We read Griffin's one-sided discussions with Theo, his estranged best friend and ex-boyfriend who died suddenly in a tragic accident, in which Griffin tells about both his present experiences in the aftermath of Theo's death and takes readers through their history since they started dating a couple of years prior. Griffin and Theo's relationship is very complicated and serves as the central story. They were best friends long turned boyfriends turned awkward exes who still had a lot of love for each other. Also in the mix are Theo's current boyfriend at the time of his death, Jackson, and Griffin and Theo's reliable but oft swept-aside other best friend, Wade. As Griffin grieves Theo, he becomes more involved with Jackson and Wade and many bad decisions and angry tears ensue as all three struggle to cope in their own ways. Readers see Griffin experience a lot of heartbreak and resulting growth as he rehashes what Theo meant to him, realizes the imperfections that were there all along in this boy he had so idolized, and comes to see the importance of others in his life whom he'd been reluctant to let in. It's incredibly emotional and messy, and thus, very realistic in its representation of heartbreak and grief.

History is All You Left Me is a raw display of all that comes with love and loss, and I really recommend it for a perspective on both that is different from your standard YA love story. Additionally, it is so important (along with Silvera's other work) for its representation of queer romance. I love that this is becoming more common in popular literature and that LGBTQIA+ teens can see themselves in these characters and their stories. Their stories are just as real and beautiful as hetero/cis stories, and it's a wonderful thing to see the progression of the genre even just in my lifetime thanks to talented authors like Adam Silvera. So support these books and show that we want more!

On a final, related note, I read both of these novels shortly before I was able to attend the Kentucky Book Fair and meet both Ally Condie and Adam Silvera (along with many other amazing authors) in person! I think I was an embarrassing fangirl, but they were two of the sweetest people and after talking to them personally and hearing them speak on a YA panel, I love their books even more. This was my first book fair and now I want to go to allll the book fairs. Could I become a book fair groupie? Is there a tour bus I can ride on? Mostly kidding. I'm not crazy. Anyway, here are my fan pics~

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The super kind and talented Adam Silvera!

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Ally Condie and I, sometime after comparing notes on our Kate Middleton Halloween costumes

Let me know your thoughts in the comments if you've read either of these, have any other recommendations for me, etc! Hope everyone's December is off to a fun and festive start. Happy reading!

KHill