ARC Review: Summer Bird Blue by Akemi Dawn Bowman
Genre: YA contemporary
Release Date: September 11, 2018
Publisher: Simon Pulse
A mixed race teen struggles to find her way back to her love of music in the wake of her sister’s tragic death in this incisive, lyrical novel that’s perfect for fans of Nicola Yoon and Jennifer Niven, by the author of William C. Morris Award finalist Starfish.
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.
Aching, powerful, and unflinchingly honest, Summer Bird Blue explores big truths about insurmountable grief, unconditional love, and how to forgive even when it feels impossible.
Disclaimer: I was provided with an eARC in exchange for an honest review. Thanks to Netgalley. I also apologize for this being late…school started. I read it in time though!
Summer Bird Blue is a summer book, as the title suggests, but it’s not at all fluffy. Instead, it’s a meditative story about grief, loss, family, healing, and identity. And definite trigger warnings for those first two, because at the very beginning of the book, Rumi’s younger sister dies in a car accident. What follows are raw sadness and emotions captured well in Bowman’s writing as Rumi is sent off to Hawaii to live with her aunt for the summer.
I enjoyed the flashbacks and insight into her life with Lea, especially as it changed as the book went on because her psychological state and processing of the event changed. The flashbacks allowed Lea and their relationship to feel real, preventing her from being too much of a plot point. I admit I was confused about their mother for a bit…there seemed to be contradictory information and I never quite got enough information to fully understand why Rumi felt the way she did about her. Thankfully, that also ended up coming to a satisfying conclusion. That said, I felt the novel as a whole (just under 400 pages) was a bit too long for what it covered?
Music is a huge part of Rumi’s life. She and Lea planned to start a band together and the two wrote songs together–their last idea was “Summer Bird Blue”–but since Lea’s death, Rumi struggles to get into it. I’m really into music myself, and I loved the descriptions of it and Rumi’s creativity. I also really enjoyed her interactions with the old man Mr. Watanabe, as they strike up an unusual but important friendship over grief, healing, and music. Also, there’s a dog!
I was really glad this took place in Hawaii and included the culture and mixed population there (several of the characters have Japanese ancestry). There are unfortunately not many novels set in Hawaii, even though a lot of publishing is US-based and it is a part of the US. As a nerd, I loved that the pidgin language was including, as I remember reading about that aspect of Hawaii in a linguistics class, although I can’t speak to its accuracy.
Lastly, one of the defining aspects of Summer Bird Blue is sexuality. Rumi thinks she’s asexual and aromantic, but she feels a lot of pressure to know for certain, especially since mortality is so clear to her. This definitely resonates with a lot of LGBTQIAP+ folks, including myself. The novel explores a possible relationship but ultimately it’s a story about friendship, which we just don’t see enough in YA. I also really appreciated how Rumi frequently calls out heteronormativity, too, which was great.
Summer Bird Blue is a raw and painfully sad book, but one that ultimately is about healing and figuring yourself out, and it’s a worthwhile addition to the YA marketplace.