Hello. Fats here.
A couple of weeks ago, when I was running out of picture books for our bimonthly theme, Loss, Heartbreak, and Coming of Age, I visited the library in hope that I would find at least one book as my salvation. Of course, I dismissed the fact that there are about five books on my shelf that I could have used for this theme.
I picked up Dana Reinhardt’s The Summer I Learned to Fly from the Teen shelf because the cover reminded me of Lettie Hempstock and the unnamed boy from Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. (Yes, my fangirling never ends.) Markus Zusak, author of The Book Thief and I Am the Messenger, said, “When you start a Dana Reinhardt book, it’s like discovering a new friend.”
On Death and Dying
It doesn’t matter who my father was; it matters who I remember he was.
— Anne Sexton, American poet
Meet Drew Robin Solo. Known to most people as Birdie, she was described as a loner. She was an only child. She lived with her mother, Lizzie, and helped her in her cheese shop in Euclid Avenue. Birdie’s father, Drew, died when she was only three years old.
And from the black hole of the grief Mom couldn’t let go of that name. She changed my name so she could hear herself say his, countless times a day… Eventually she did the paperwork and saw to it officially—and well after the fact of my birth—that despite being a girl, I be called after my father.
Birdie found a book of lists that her deceased father kept when he was still alive. It was a list of various things, from his favorite foods to his least-favorite bands of all time. Because Birdie’s father died before her mind could form memories, the Book of Lists was the only thing that connects the two of them.
I read that composition book from cover to cover sitting on my pink shag carpet, but I didn’t stop there. I read it most days. I returned to it like some people return to the Bible. And like the Bible, there were days I needed it more than others… It’s hard to say whether there was something that struck me the hardest or surprised me the most. When you don’t know someone, everything you learn about him is its own sort of surprise.
The Summer I Learned to Fly illustrates how the death of a loved one makes a person cling to just about anything to keep the bond. In most of the picture books I’ve read about loss and grief, the characters dealt with death through the memories shared with those that had left them behind. In Dana Reinhardt’s book, there is a more tangible connection between the living and the dead, although I don’t know if a person’s name is ‘tangible’ enough.
Fortuitous Encounters and Friendships Built on Cheese and Rodents
Birdie only wanted two things to happen to her that summer: 1) for her life to ‘begin;’ and 2) for her to meet someone she can genuinely call a friend. Call me a sap but I was moved by this. Other adolescents would want to sign up for cool summer activities or travel somewhere beautiful. Birdie just wanted a friend. And I don’t blame her.
Birdie’s history of failed friendships was a little heartbreaking. The last set of friends that she had was not even worthy of being called ‘friends.’ They were girls that have been consumed by the mighty jungle of cliques and popularity. A perfect sequel to Mean Girls.
The closest she could call to friends were her Aunt ‘Swoozie’ and Nick who both work at The Cheese Shop with her mother. Then, of course, there was His Excellency the Lord High Rat Humboldt Fog, Birdie’s pet rat known simply as Hum. So there you have it: a cheese shop, friends that are not even her own age, and a pet rat.
This pet rat, however, would play a key role in Birdie’s most exciting summer yet. As noted in the front jacket flap of the book, after closing time, she meets a strange boy named Emmett Crane in the alley behind the shop. I don’t want to say much about these two because the story is focused on them. But I suppose I can borrow a few lines to share with you:
Something told me I didn’t want to read his note at work where Mom or Swoozie or Veronica might see me. So I waited. And I was right to wait, because when I got home that night, and went up to my room and closed my door and opened the crane and read his note, I started to cry.
What it said inside the paper crane:
I want to be your friend, but I’m afraid I don’t know how.
The ‘Flight’ of Passage and the Summers That Change Our Lives Forever
While the idea of flight is sometimes associated with freedom, I’d like to think of it, in the case of this book, as a ‘rite of passage.’ I thought of this idea while pondering about the title of the book. I was reminded of Ed Young’s Hook. The eagle was not meant for earth but to soar above ground. Similarly, Birdie was meant for bigger things and adventures in life. She didn’t believe it at first, that she was capable of doing something spectacular for herself. But she learned to spread her wings, let go, and trust the wind to carry her.
This book is about taking risks. On life, on friendship, on life-altering situations. It’s about believing and breaking free and doing things you didn’t think you were capable of doing. It’s about making sacrifices and giving up the things you love most for a bigger purpose. If you’re looking for a romantic YA read, then this book might not be for you.
“I feel that we are often taken out of our comfort zones, pushed and shoved out of our nests, because if not, we would never know what we could do with our wings, we would never see the horizon and the sun setting on it, we would never know that there’s something far better beyond where we are at the moment. It can hurt, but then later you say, ‘thank you.'”
— C. JoyBell C.
To most of us, summer is the season we look forward to. There is always the promise of new adventures and new (and renewed) friendships that are forever life-changing. I found it a pleasure meeting a “new friend” through Dana Reinhardt. The Summer I Learned to Fly is my first Reinhardt book. It was a surprisingly* good read, and it made me want to explore her other works.
*For me, it’s always a risk picking up random YA books from the shelf. I love the element of surprise I get from a satisfying YA read. I hope that made some sense. XD