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Summer Bird Blue by Akemi Dawn Bowman

Rumi and her sister Lea share their love of music and songwriting; it makes them closer than most sisters or friends. But after Lea dies in a car accident, Rumi is left alone with her grief. Her mom sends her to Hawaii, where Rumi struggles to find a way to finish the last song she started with Lea, “Summer Bird Blue.”

I read this one because I had heard some really positive things about its depiction of grief, and because my contemporary YA reading could always use a boost. I didn’t know much about the plot or characters going in.

Sometimes when I read YA, I wonder if my reaction is colored by my age, and that was definitely the case here. While I liked the prose and the spareness of the story, I felt like I could predict the overall character arc and themes of the book within the first few pages. Since the story felt expected in that sense, I struggled to really immerse myself in it. However, I suspect that for teen readers that might not be the case.

I did really enjoy Rumi’s neighbor in Hawaii, Mr. Watanabe. In addition to being a snarky monster, it was also nice to see some older characters in a YA book, having real relationships with the main character in a way that felt realistic. Rumi’s friendship with her other neighbor, Kai, were also refreshing–while Kai is somewhat interested in her romantically, Rumi doesn’t feel that way about him and talks about how she possibly considers herself asexual on the page. 

And while for me Rumi’s journey throughout the book felt a bit predictable and repetitive, Bowman does a great job of shading in the details of the initial picture we get, especially in regards to Lea and Rumi’s relationship. It’s clear that there was a special bond between the sisters, but it also becomes clear over the course of the story that they also fought and were jealous of each other in ways that make both more human.

Lastly, I loved the setting–Hawaii is not somewhere I’ve ever been or felt a particular desire to visit, but the history and heritage of the characters, as well as the physical setting, are important background and inform who they are and how they live in the world.

All in all, while I wasn’t personally in love with this one, I would definitely hand it to teenage readers, especially those who are grappling with grief and the different forms it can take. Readers who liked Ashley Woodfolk’s The Beauty That Remains might especially appreciate it.


Previously, on By Singing Light:

The Caged Graves by Dianne Salerni (2013)
The Whispering Skull by Jonathan Stroud (2014)
The Shadow Behind the Stars by Rebecca Hahn (2015)
Dancing, Princesses, Magic: Vernon and Valentine (2016)