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Saturday, July 16, 2016

Summerlost, written by Ally Condie. Dutton, Penguin. 2016. $23.99 ages 10 and up

"We didn't deal with skiing last winter. My mom didn't get out the ski rack or the skis. She wasn't as good as my dad, and driving in the snow scared her, even though she was the one who had lived in it all her life and my dad was from Portland, where it didn't snow nearly as much. We didn't even talk about going skiing. And I wasn't mad. I didn't want to go either. Maybe Miles did, but if so, he didn't say. "

I have been reading a lot of middle grade fiction in recent weeks ... lucky me! There are a bunch of wonderful books available, written by accomplished and incredibly thoughtful writers. Ally Condie is one of them.

In her new novel, she introduces us to Cedar Lee whose mother has returned with the family to Iron Creek, Utah where she grew up. They will be there for the summer, and Cedar's mother is working hard to make their new house a lovely summer retreat. A retreat is much needed as they are all still reeling follwoing the accident that killed Cedar's father and brother Ben one year ago.

As she sits contemplating this new reality, Cedar notices a costumed boy riding past on his bike. She is intrigued. It doesn't take long to make his acquaintance. Leo helps Cedar find a job at the town's summer Shakespearean festival, called Summerlost. The two work at selling concessions there. Because Leo is an enterprising sort and needs to make enough money to travel to England with his father, they are soon leading unofficial walking tours that focus on Lisette Chamberlain. Lisette was a homegrown actress who died suddenly years ago. The two think that they might find clues that will lead to understanding the mystery that surrounds her early death.

The friendship between Cedar and Leo is steadfast, and certainly the strongest part of the story. Secondary characters add interest and some conflict. Grief plays a fitting role without being overwhelming as Cedar shares memories of her father and brother. We learn that Ben was perhaps autistic, prone to behaviors that were often difficult for Cedar and her family. Cedar regrets that there were times when she wished he was not there. Now that he is gone, she remembers the good times and how much she really did love him:

"It's not only the hard stuff I remember about Ben. I remember his ruffly hair, how he screamed but sometimes laughed. I remember his eyes wild and also very, very deep. I remember him when he was a baby and a toddler and he was cute and funny and none of us, including Ben, had any idea how things were going to turn out. And how he started to talk again that last year and liked me to hold his hand when we watched scary parts in movies. He'd let go right when the scary part was over but when it was happening he held on tight. I loved him. I finally loved him again, and then he was gone."

Her voice is honest, reflective, often sad and tender; all the while it is a realistic depiction of what happens as families deal with the reality of moving on from something life-changing. She finds needed strength in her friendship with Leo. Leo is very much in need of a friend as well. Bullying plays a quiet role in helping us see how uncertain life can be, and how vulnerable we are.

Cedar remembers:

"My dad used to say that life was like turning the pages in a book. "Oh, look," he’d say, pretending to flip the pages in the air after we’d had something bad happen to us. "Bad luck here on page ninety-seven. And on ninety-eight. But something good here on ninety-nine! All you had to do was keep reading! ” ... Of course he never slammed the book shut, which was what happened to him. One last bad thing and then the end for him and for Ben. No more pages to turn, nothing to get them to a better part of the story."

Hopeful in the end, and filled with loving memories that help the healing. This book deserves your attention.

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