Genre Kryptonite: Summer Friendships

“Summer read” is one of those terms thrown around somewhat loosely; a term that can mean a variety of things, depending on the context. Sometimes summer reads are simply books released in the summer of any given year. Sometimes “summer read” and “beach read” are synonymous, with both referring to a kind of book that is entertaining, light in tone and doesn’t require too much mental heavy lifting or isn’t too emotionally taxing.

Sometimes, though, “summer read” can also be sub-genre unto itself, one in which summer is more an intrinsic part of the book’s story than simply its setting. Often populating this genre are stories of “summer friends” — intense, usually young friendships that are like flowers that only bloom in the white-hot rays of the summer sun.

My family didn’t own a cottage or a summer house and I never went to sleep-away camp, so I didn’t really have specific summer friends. But I think for most kids and teens, summer is a time of possibility, defiance, and growth. There is less structure and more freedom and a respite from the pressures of school and larger peer groups, so it’s no wonder it’s a time when friendships blossom. Even my all-year friends became closer, more intense, and somehow purer-feeling during the summer. So as a tribute to that, here is my list of books about intense, meaningful summer friends.

We Were Liars by E. LockhartWe Were Liars by E. Lockhart

Even if you haven’t already read We Were Liars, chances are you have heard of it – it was one of Goodreads’ “It Books” of 2014 and has been much discussed here and on other bookish sites. The “summer friends” in this case are the Sinclair cousins, who meet every summer in their respective East Coast summer homes. One summer they become caught in an escalating cold war between their respective parents and their capricious, manipulative grandfather, with some grim consequences.

Lockhart’s book is a series of contradictions: it’s slender, but it packs the punch of a book over twice its size; it’s heady, but it goes down easily in one gripping, fever-dream sitting; it feels fresh but also ultra-aware of a literary heritage that includes King Lear and Wuthering Heights. Whether or not a book lives up to its hype is often a matter of personal taste (especially so in this case — Lockhart’s lyrical, ominous prose is widely divisive), but I can certainly say that We Were Liars is well worth a read, especially if you like stories of summer friends.

summer sistersSummer Sisters by Judy Blume

With the publication of her newest book, In the Unlikely Event, the Internet is (rightly) abuzz about Judy Blume lately, and we’ve seen a lot of nostalgia pieces about Blume young adult classics like Tiger Eyes and Are You There, God It’s Me Margaret? Summer Sisters, however, is a Blume book that seems to fly under the radar a bit, perhaps because it very definitely geared to an older audience. Summer Sisters is, to put it bluntly, a melodrama and a half. You can practically see the exclamations: friendship! betrayal! mystery! romance! scandal!

The summer friends in this case are wallflower Vix and her beautiful, charismatic friend, Caitlin. These two are technically friends all year round, but because Vix spends her summers with Caitlin’s family in Martha’s Vineyard so some of their most intense, memorable experiences as girls and as friends are summer-set. Summer Sisters charts Vix and Caitlin’s friendships from adolescent to adult; the book begins with a grown-up Caitlin calling Vix to tell her that she will be marrying Vix’s ex, Bru. The book flashes back and forward from that moment charing Vix and Caitlin’s dramatic, passionate and often fraught friendship. Like I said, it’s melodramatic, but it’s also Blume. If you are interested in curling up with something particularly juicy (I am, always), it’s a good bet.

this one summerThis One Summer, Mariko Tamaki (author) and Jillian Tamaki (illustrator)

I read this last weekend and absolutely loved every second of it. This One Summer is a perfect snapshot of an Ontario summer and more importantly, of a moment of girlhood. It’s also a perfect marriage of story and characterization and utterly gorgeous artwork. Jillian Tamaki’s illustrations are grounded reality — she ash a real eye for detail and facial expression — but suffused with warm, sharp-edged nostalgia.

The story of This One Summer loosely follows friends Rose and Windy, two girls who meet up every summer in the cottage town of Awago Beach. Rose and Windy spend this particular summer in classic pre-teen fashion: running around outside, snooping in places they shouldn’t, scarfing down sugary snacks, and watching illicit, age-inappropriate slasher flicks behind their parents’ backs.

As the adults around them tackle some serious issues, Rose and Windy are absorbed in the equally tough business of growing up girls. Mariko Tamaki captures that moment in their lives when girls are absorbing so many messages — from media, from adults, and from older kids — about women, and are left to sort through them as they grapple with their own heady, confusing, and often contradictory feelings. The results aren’t always pretty.

But one of the things I loved about this book is how right it gets all the messy, unpretty elements of average, non-“mean girl” girlhood. Rose and Windy are sweetly bawdy and bloodthirsty — they are fascinated with “tits” and gore in a way that rings very true to me (seriously if you think teenage boys are obsessed with breasts, you should listen in on some pre-teen girls). They’re both generally good kids but Rose especially, as the older of the two by a year, can be moody, impatient and occasionally cruel. Because they’re kids. They’re girls. They’re human.

If you’re looking for achingly real young female protagonists, beautiful illustrations, and a bittersweet story, I highly recommend This One Summer.

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