Published by Simon Pulse on September 11, 2018
Genres: Contemporary, Young Adult
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Rumi Seto spends a lot of time worrying she doesn’t have the answers to everything. What to eat, where to go, whom to love. But there is one thing she is absolutely sure of—she wants to spend the rest of her life writing music with her younger sister, Lea.
Then Lea dies in a car accident, and her mother sends her away to live with her aunt in Hawaii while she deals with her own grief. Now thousands of miles from home, Rumi struggles to navigate the loss of her sister, being abandoned by her mother, and the absence of music in her life. With the help of the “boys next door”—a teenage surfer named Kai, who smiles too much and doesn’t take anything seriously, and an eighty-year-old named George Watanabe, who succumbed to his own grief years ago—Rumi attempts to find her way back to her music, to write the song she and Lea never had the chance to finish.
I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
Content warnings: car accident, death of a loved one, grief, depression
Akemi Dawn Bowman’s debut, Starfish, was one of my favorite debuts of 2017. So, naturally, I knew I had to pick up her follow-up, Summer Bird Blue (even though I knew going in that this book would probably destroy me, and guess what? IT SURE DID). Summer Bird Blue is a poignant story about grief and processing the loss of someone you always expected to be around. It discusses sibling relationships, the healing power of music, and questioning your identity, all set against the vibrant backdrop of a summer in Hawaii.
This book follows Rumi, our main character, over the course of a summer as she’s sent to live with her aunt in Hawaii, to give her mother some space and time to process her own grief from the death of Rumi’s younger sister, Lea, in a car accident that both Rumi and her mother survived. Rumi feels an immense amount of guilt due to having survived when her sister did not, along with the intense grief that comes along with losing a sister and a best friend. With help from some unlikely sources– including her aunt, her elderly next-door neighbor, and a neighborhood surfer boy– Rumi begins to process her loss.
Rumi, as a character, was an excellent protagonist. All of her emotions, the rage, the all-consuming sadness, felt very realistic. Rumi’s healing is not linear, and I appreciated this, because healing from such a huge loss so rarely is. I also loved the instrumental (no pun intended, really) part music played in Rumi’s healing. Music was a shared language between Rumi and her sister, and while at first it’s too painful for Rumi to write or play music without Lea, she eventually begins to channel some of her emotion into music as a way of coping with all she’s experienced. The people Rumi meets in Hawaii also help her begin to heal, and I thought this was a standout cast of characters. From Kai’s unrelenting bubbly attitude, to her aunt’s unconditional love, to Mr. Watanabe’s companionable silence, all of them give her space to grieve in their own ways.
One of the standout elements of Summer Bird Blue was the exploration of questioning, aromantic, and asexual identities. Even though Rumi knows all the terminology, she still isn’t quite sure where she fits on the aromantic and asexual spectrums. This felt so validating. Although I don’t ID as asexual, as someone who identifies on the aro spectrum, I have never felt so SEEN in that part of my identity. I am always here for seeing more questioning characters in YA, because questioning is a huge part of many queer people figuring out how we identify. It shows teens that it’s okay to not know exactly where you fit or which label (if any) you prefer. Add into this the fact that Rumi is both aro and ace, and doesn’t end up in a relationship, and it was pretty much perfection. By the end of the story, Rumi still does not identify with any specific label, and I’M SO HERE FOR THAT. I’m going to be throwing this book into the hands of everyone who asks for queer YA recommendations, because it takes such a refreshing approach to asexuality, aromanticism, and orientation in general. (I believe the ace rep is #ownvoices, but I’m unsure about the aro rep.)
Hawaii acted as the perfect backdrop for this story. The contrast between Rumi’s darkness and the beautiful, sunny island where she’s living was brilliant. Additionally, much of the dialogue consists of Hawaiian Pidgin, which the author learned from her father. Almost all of the characters in this story are nonwhite, and most of them are mixed-race. This diversity was so refreshing and felt so realistic given the setting. I also kind of loved how temporal the setting was– like, yes, it played a part in Rumi’s healing process, so the island and the people she met there are important to her in that regard, but just because they were important to her during a season in her life does not mean they are the be-all and end-all of the rest of her life. (Not sure if that makes sense, but for those of you who have read the book, I’m trying to say that I loved the ending and found it really realistic.)
Overall, though Summer Bird Blue may be raw and brutally honest in its depictions of grief, it’s also, ultimately, hopeful. This is a novel that will stick with me for a long while. I recommend it for anyone looking for a realistic depiction of grief, or anyone seeking out questioning, aromantic, and/or asexual representation in fiction.
Have you read Summer Bird Blue? What’s your favorite YA contemporary that deals with grief or loss?