What is it About Books of Summer? by Gae Polisner
Dear Mother Nature, is SUMMER ever coming?
I don’t mean to whine, but at least here in New York you sure are taking your own sweet time about all things sunshine, flowers, water and sand. Forget the beach. Even your sweet spring buds are barely in sight.
Lucky for all of us, fictional summers wait for no one. In my new YA novel, THE SUMMER OF LETTING GO (AYR, ages 12+), Francesca and Frankie, Lisette and Bradley, and, yes, good old Peter Pintero, have already alit across the fictional beaches of Long Island, where they will wend and weave their way through one challenging, yet memorable, summer.
In brief, THE SUMMER OF LETTING GO tells the story of Francesca “Frankie” “Beans” Schnell who, four years ago on her watch, witnessed her baby brother Simon drown. Understandably, Francesca has spent the last four years living in the shadows of that tragedy, steeped in her own guilt, and worse, her fear that her own mother doesn’t – can’t – really love her anymore. That is until the summer of her 16th year, when she meets a little boy named Frankie Sky, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Simon.
But, what is it about summer that draws us as writers and readers to a story?
We all know the stories from our childhood. The Summer of My German Soldier. The Summer of the Swans. Or for the younger set reading, That Summer or The Summer I Turned Pretty.
I recently sat on a “Summer Books” panel for the NYC Teen Author Festival (run annually in May by the extraordinary David Levithan) where we talked a bit about why we set our books in summer – what it is about those few brief weeks that draw us to pen our stories there.
Answers ranged from kids being put in unique, parentless situations (the ubiquitous summer camps or trips to far-off relatives’ homes, or friends’ summer cabins on a lake…), to the benefit of being able to remove the main character from the constraints of school and authority, both technical and emotional.
For me, as a kid, summer always felt different, an oddly-suspended, sometimes cruel, sometimes carefree, few weeks of life.
Summer was when we moved from our small, quaint middle class neighborhood with sidewalks dotted with bicycles, and cape houses to your left and right you could reach out your window and touch, to an isolated sprawling house atop a hill in the woods, on a street with no sidewalks, where your nearest neighbor was more than a brush-heavy acre away.
Summer was when my mother fell off a horse, cracked open her skull and nearly died.
Summer was vacations on the Cape, or other seaside resort towns.
Summer was when you got over the boy you loved but didn’t love you back, or met a new boy you loved, but would have to get over the moment that temperatures cooled.
And, because the social aspects of middle and high school weren’t always smooth or easy for me, summer represented escape, the time of year when I could be the most uninhibitedly “me.”
I could do the things that I loved without others knowing, things that weren’t considered exactly cool. Like attend acting camp to play a clown or Amelia Earhart, or make up endless Esther William’s routines with my sister in the pool.
The flip side was that there was a certain isolation and ennui that often drifted me further away from feeling that I fit in, making wading back into school in the fall a most tremulous, challenging time.
Perhaps, as a “visual” writer, it is the externals of summer – the heat and sunshine and watery settings – that up the literal and figurative intensity of its stories for me, shining a brighter spotlight on life, creating a dichotomy of pinpointed clarity and focus, against a contrary backdrop of a lazy, hazy, free-floating, unscheduled world. Like a photograph where the central character is in focus, but the background is blurred, or vice versa.
And, yes, maybe most importantly for me, summer stories avail their dwellers to the water. Is there a summer book that doesn’t fling its characters into the surf, let them splash about deliriously, before leaving them to bask in some hypnotic, altered state atop warm sands, the smell of coconut and suntan lotion wafting in the air?
As some of you may know, I am an avid open water swimmer. For me, water represents bliss and restoration, yet I am acutely aware of its immense power, too. I have felt that power firsthand, to swiftly drag us under and sweep us away, leaving no trace upon its vast surface. Perhaps, like this, summer is a microcosm of the macrocosmic vast ocean itself: roiling and cruel one moment, warm, calm and welcoming the next, each new summer like a wave, ripe with terror and possibility, begging the question, which kind of summer will you be?
Do summer books draw you in? If so, what is it about them that does?
Gae Polisner is the Nerdy-Award-winning author of The Pull of Gravity and The Summer of Letting Go (Algonquin Young Readers). She is a family law mediator by trade but a writer by calling. She lives on Long Island with her husband, two sons, and a small, suspiciously fictional-looking dog she swore she’d never own. When she’s not writing, she can be found in a pool or, in warmer weather, in her wet suit in the open waters of the Long Island Sound. You may read more about why Gae wrote THE SUMMER OF LETTING GO here, meet the cast of characters here, and find the readers guide here. Gae loves the Nerdy Book Club and is always honored to be in the presence of the nerdiest ones.