Summer Reading – What I learned from Lois Lowry

Lois Lowry via sciencefantasiction

Isn’t this one of the greatest author pictures you’ve ever seen? That dog looks freakin’ soulful.

Anyway, that’s sort of beside the point. Because this is meant to be a post about what I learned about writing from reading A Summer to Die. So, here goes –

1. How to write about sisters – I have several of them. Five to be exact. And at least three really close girl-friends that I consider sisters. So that brings us up to 8. Basically, if I was one of those girls who went for the traditional wedding with the huge Bridal party I wouldn’t have any trouble filling it out. And there’s something about sisters that’s just a special relationship. Your sister is at different points (and sometimes several at the same time) your greatest friend, your worst enemy, your biggest rival, and your best cheerleader. You share so many experiences, yet come out of your early family life as distinct and separate people. If you fall in the second half of the sibling run down (like me) you see the beginning of the parents’ increasingly lax parenting.

I, like Meg and Molly of ASTD, had to share a bedroom with a sister. At one point it was my oldest sister, at another time it was with my younger sister. There are seven years between each of us. A 7 year old rooming with a 14 year old is quite the social experiment. I absolutely loathed it when I was 12 and Camille was 5. In fact, I think because we shared that room I had no interest in being friends with my younger sister for many years. Then it was like one day I decided to make her awesome. So we hung out more, and now she’s one of my best friends. Probably knows more about me than any other person alive. This relationship is difficult to put into words. To strike the chord perfectly between the good and the bad without making one look downright mean or the other too self-deprecating. It’s a trick. I think Lowry pulled it off very well. I felt newly inspired to tackle the project of writing about my family. (Which causes me to take in big gulps of air at the mere prospect).

2. Creating a vaguely timeless setting- There are bits about ASTD that seem a bit dated. It was, after all, originally published in 1977. However, minus the typewriters most of the story is easily translatable to 2011. It’s charmingly devoid of annoying technological devices. The family unit is upheld and simultaneously expanded to include *gasp* hippies and hyphenated woman-empowered last names. Film photography plays a role in the story. But many of the other key elements are simply timeless. In the Author’s Note (guys, I can’t get over these… they motivate me to write merely so that one day I may reveal all my precious secrets in an Author’s Note) Lowry talks about how medicine has advanced to the point of virtually a complete cure of the disease that took her sister too soon. The cancer chosen for the story is a pretty nasty bit of work. One that still kills about 8990 people a year. In the years since this book initially hit the shelves cancer has become an increasingly common disease. Every family has been touched by cancer, and in most cases, in more than one family member. It’s become even more relatable. Which is a melancholy thought.

3. The importance of mentor relationships in YA fiction – Here’s the thing. I love rebellious teenagers in fiction. I think it’s an empowering experiment. Teenagers are in that precarious place (that I seem to indefinitely placed myself) between childhood and adulthood. They bear some of the responsibility of their actions, but not quite all of it. They can reason some things through, but rarely posses the gumption to follow a train of thought to its complete set of consequences. Most modern YA Lit treats adults as enemies, outsiders, a mass of the population that has “forgotten what it’s like”. It was refreshing to read a story that featured at least five adults that were a positive influence in the main character’s life. Don’t get me wrong, Meg is still an angsty teen in a few scenes. She’s dense and says hurtful things to people that care about her. But instead of sulking for the rest of the story, she apologizes. She learns from her dense, hurtful behaviour and attempts to fix it. And the adults act more like gentle bumpers, carefully correcting her course so that she really does learn. They give her opportunities to succeed as well; that is invaluable. I think it’s important to reflect in fiction the importance of a mentor, at least one adult that cares. The modern trend seems to be revealing teenagers in all their Lord of the Flies glory. The BBC’s (and to some extent MTV’s) Skins makes a point of showing off completely depraved teenagers that seem to lack any substantial adult influence. Cherrybomb is a movie that does pretty much the same thing. And for a completely American example Disturbia plays into the paranoia that adults JUST DON’T LISTEN TO THE BRILLIANT TEENAGERS! There are a million movie, song, and book examples of this trend. Lowry’s ASTD is a drop in the pond. A barely noticeable drop. But like I said in my last post about this book, I think we adults should start carrying copies of it around to replace some of the other “more popular” literature the teenagers are so keen to read these days.

Anyway, those are some of the things I felt were important enough to share. Definitely pick it up. Start a conversation with a teenager about it. And be prepared to cry, a little.

Summer Reading – A Summer to Die

A Summer to Die by Lois Lowry

I really love Lois Lowry. I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned that before here. But I know I’ve shared this affinity with both of my younger sisters. And there was this one particularly wonderful conversation about The Giver that I had with a beautiful, inspiring boy in the front seat of his car as we contemplated life together one night in North Tampa. I think about 60% of my love for Lois Lowry could be drawn back to that boy. I am totally okay with that. I mean sometimes boys introduce you to really amazing things like Dr. Pepper, Thrice, and a mind-blowing understanding of young adult dystopian literature. But I digress.

This is the first (and so far only) Lois Lowry novel I’ve read that is not in some way connected to The Giver. (Did you know that The Giver is actually first in a trilogy? It’s a pretty solid trilogy, too.) I picked it up way back when at Inkwood Books along with The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s a slim volume; it didn’t take me very long to read it. Mostly the delay could be attributed to the fact that I tried to make one of my younger sisters read it before me and she never got around to it, so I just took it back.

           A Summer to Die is something we’d call semi-autobiographical. It’s about a family that moves to the country somewhere where it gets really cold. The father is a pleasant university professor on sabbatical to work on his book about irony. The mother is a homemaker. There are two teenage girls that, because of the move, are forced to share a room for the first time in their lives. They move into an old farmhouse and the main character, the younger sister, begins to blossom as a person. Her passion for photography, given her new environment, and the indulgence of their Septuagenarian neighbor, is developed and becomes quite a talent. While Meg, the protagonist (heroine? I don’t know… main? Take your pick) develops her talent in various artistic forms her sister, the popular and pretty Molly, sort of begins to disintegrate.

Now, it’s obvious from the title that someone in the story is going to die. A bit melodramatic and heavy-handed, but it’s perfectly pitched for Young Adult Literature. It’s just obvious enough to demand their attention. Going in to the story I knew someone would die, but I thought it might be the main character. I was wrong.

What I loved the most about this story was how much I felt connected to Meg. I grew up reading the Anne of Green Gables and Emily of New Moon series by L.M. Montgomery, so that frigid countryside struck something nostalgic within me. And Meg is such a great little protagonist. She desperately wants her life to mean something and she’s just beginning to understand the richer subtext of life (the irony her dad academizes, the metaphor that her neighbor uses, the direct honesty of her hippy neighbors). She’s beginning to understand what is important.

It’s a lovely story – precious and heartbreaking. I would recommend it for any teenage girls looking for a simple enough read that “tugs heartstrings”. In fact, I would say if you see any teenage girls reading any part of the Twilight series, just go ahead and swap the two books out. A Summer to Die has much healthier examples of love and suffering and developing into an adult.