By Hannah Barnaby
Houghton Mifflin Books for children, 2012
Honors: William C. Morris Award finalist * Kirkus Best Teen Books * Bank Street College Best Children’s Books * YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults
I remember the first time I went to the circus. I was five, and my mother took me to see the Ringling Bros at Madison Square Garden. I remember that the clowns frightened me, that the giraffe felt like a skyscraper, and that I said a dirty word that got me scolded. But mostly, I remember that it was the first big outing I took with my mother.
Maybe that’s why I adore Wonder Show. My mom passed away last year, and I read this book at her bedside during her final days. It’s no surprise that I would turn to a book for escape and solace. It’s always been that way for me. But I found myself completely absorbed in this story of a strong girl, her longing for family, and the role of self-forgiveness for all of us.
Set in the 1930’s, Wonder Show is the story of Portia, a girl who loves to make up stories for anyone who’ll listen. She is abandoned first by her mother, then her loving father, Max, and finally by her no-nonsense Aunt Sofia, who decides she can’t raise the headstrong and creative girl on her own. Portia finds herself in the care (loose definition, here) of the ever-creepy Mister at the Home for Wayward Girls. Here, her life as an outsider begins. When her desperate attempt to help a friend dodge Mister’s marital intentions goes terribly wrong, Portia flees in desperation and joins—what else?—the circus.
Well, not exactly the circus. She joins the part of the circus where the true outsiders reside: the Wonder Show, filled with Siamese twins, bearded ladies, giants, armless knife throwers and more.
Barnaby’s debut is so impressive. She recreates the tightly knit community expertly, and her instincts for timing and tension are spot on. She creates characters that are rich in their own needs and failings. I found it almost impossible to stop reading at the end of each chapter. And, I fell in love with Portia.
It’s a teen novel that can work especially well in middle school, but really, any age can enjoy this creepy and thoughtful tale. In Portia, we have a strong girl who refuses to be beaten down, even by her own remorse. – Meg
The Burning Time
By Robin Morgan
Melville House, 2012
Honors: American Booksellers Association, “Book Sense” pick * “Reccomended Quality Fiction List 2007,” American Library Association Feminist Task Force * Amelia Bloomer Project
Welcome 2014 Girls of Summer Guest Star, Robin Morgan! Take it away, Robin:
For me, young adult’s books and, for that matter, children’s books, are literature, like any other (good) books. I grew up reading everything I could get my eyes on: Aesop, Grimm, Carroll, Anderson, Hudson, Lamb’s Tales of Shakespeare, Girl of the Limberlost and Nancy Drew, Scott, comic books, poetry–and also Kafka (whom I found hilarious) and Hawthorne, Alcott and Poe, Twain and the Brontes and Mary Renault. Since I wasn’t told “That’s for adults, not you,” I happily read on, and what I didn’t understand I skipped over and returned to later. It was all literature to me, all magical.
Consequently, my so-far-one “children’s book,” The Mer Child, is subtitled A Legend for Children and Other Adults, and my recent historical novel, The Burning Time, was intended as a rollicking good saga, complete with practical witchcraft, horses and torches and medieval pageantry—the kind of book I as a child secretly continued reading under the covers by flashlight past bedtime. I had never thought of a readership age bracket for The Burning Time until it was highly recommended by the American Library Association Amelia Bloomer Project recognizing distinguished fiction for young people; later, some reviewer said it was “so juicy a tale it must be for young adults”—meaning what? That literature for older adults should be boring, flat, and alienated? Phooey.
The Mer Child, based on a fantasy tale I made up for bedtime telling to my son when he was eight, is really a love story of two kids, outsiders both, who find a deep kinship in each other. The Mer Child—son of a mermaid and a human–has pale green skin, surf-white hair, and a shimmering rainbow-hued tail, and isn’t fully accepted in the sea world or the human world. The Little Girl, daughter of a black mother and white father, is also not accepted, both because of her skin color and because her legs are paralyzed. These two outcasts find a home in each other. It’s a story about difference and sameness, not fitting in, the preciousness of being unique (and its cost)—and about overcoming bigotry and ignorance. All of those subjects are, I believe, decidedly appropriate for readers of any age, since every one of us, including children, experiences such things anyway and might as well be equipped to deal creatively with them.
The Burning Time is not a fantasy. It is based on the true story of one woman’s remarkable fight against the Inquisition, set against the vivid tapestry of the 14th century and drawn from court records of the first witchcraft trial in Ireland: the tale of an extraordinary real-life noblewoman, Lady Alyce Kyteler of Kilkenny. When the Church imported its Inquisition—known as “The Burning Time” to followers of the Old Religion, or the Craft of Wicce (Witch Craft)—to Ireland, it did so via an ambitious, sophisticated bishop acting as Papal Emissary. But Alyce Kyteler–educated, wealthy, and a Craft Priestess–refused to cede power to the Church over herself, her lands, her people, or their ancient faith. She and the bishop engaged in a personal battle of wits, and when she outmaneuvered him she provoked his hatred. He pronounced her followers heretics and gambled his Church career on breaking her. But Kyteler had power, connections, fearlessness, and the loyalty of her people, especially her courageous young handmaiden, Petronilla. Battle plans were laid. Finally, risking death by burning at the stake, Kyteler invoked a mysterious, possibly otherworldly ally–the novel’s shocking, dramatic climax. I wanted to write a lush, enthralling story of memorable characters based on actual historical figures, an unforgettable tale of power, politics, bravery, and passions both earthly and spiritual. When The Historical Novels Review called it “a fantastic page-turner”—I did a little dance around the room, since that is precisely what I had been working toward.
The point is the story, always the story.
I feel a deep, close relationship with my reader, and I respect her/his intelligence enormously. The truth is, I write what I’d love to read, at any age, myself!
By e.E. Charlton-Trujillo
Candlewick Press, 2013
Honors: Stonewall Book Award 2014
Fat Angie’s life is a list of miseries. There’s Stacy Ann Sloan and her crew, who have pinned the ugly moniker, and the fact that Angie’s sister has been missing and is presumed dead in Iraq. Angie’s “could-not-be-bothered mother” harasses her over her weight, her therapist is a turd, and her public suicide attempt has made national headlines. Life as a so-called “freak” is killing her.
Enter stage left one hot girl named K.C. Romance.
Fat Angie is a book about two young women who fall in love at a time when they’re wrestling with their own grief and circumstances. There’s a lot to wrap your arms and heart around here: suicide, cutting, grief, bullying, war, family dysfunction—but then, when did life ever parcel troubles out one by one? Besides, there’s also ample dark comedy by way of a ridiculous therapist and a refreshing style that mimics the very media that has helped ruin Angie’s life. I especially love the quirky friendship and romance between Angie and K.C., their oddball shared interests (Japanese light up candy rings), and dialogue with lines like “Let me SparkNote it,” instead of, say, “I can explain.”
Don’t look for neatly tied up resolutions among the characters, particularly not Angie and her mother. Instead, look for Fat Angie’s emotional transformation into simply Angie, a girl who finds her voice at the other end of forgiveness and acceptance. – Meg
Meet e.E. Charlton Trujillo here on Meg’s website.
Enjoy her trailer, too!
By Susann Cokal
Candlewick Press, 2013
Young Adult, Ages 16 and up
Additional formats: e-book, audio
Honors: Michael L. Printz Honor Book * YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults * Publishers Weekly Best Books of 2013 * Boston Globe Best of YA 2013
Fleeing a public scandal, young Ava Bingen secures a position as a seamstress in the 16th-century court of King Christian of Skyggehavn. When the nervous Ava accidentally pricks the queen, she draws not only royal blood but also the suspicions of Midi Sorte, a mute, enslaved African nursemaid. The needle incident triggers a dark attempt to seize power by lords and scholars, and the females in the palace find their safety, security, their bodies, and very lives under siege.
I first read The Kingdom of Little Woundsas a manuscript, then in galley form, and again after its hardcover release. Each time, I have been transported—body, mind, and spirit—to the Kingdom of Skyggehavn.
What a magnificent, enchanted, and terrifying kingdom it is.
I’ve heard some readers say they stopped reading The Kingdom because they couldn’t “go there.” Cokal does, indeed, grip her readers by the cheeks and very firmly turn them to face terror, subjugation, and oppression inflicted upon females, as has been done throughout the ages. Yet her lyrical writing, saturated with passion and splendor, makes it hard to turn away because she floods the senses with good and delicate things, too. And in the end, friendship rules the Kingdom.
This is a novel for mature readers who are willing to “go there,” those who realize that avoidance won’t change the past and won’t stop the atrocities that continue to be committed against girls and women all over the globe in the twenty-first century. It is hard to read about rape and violence, but “going there”—being present to the oppression of girls and women whether in non-fiction or fiction or poetry—may help to unlock our voices, our prayers, our power so that we can face down the unacceptable treatment of females, whether in Skyggehavn in 1572, Steubenville in 2012, or the Nigerian village of Chibok in 2014. – Gigi
By Jenny Hubbard
Young Adult (high school)
Delacorte Press, a Division of Random House, 2014
Other formats: e-book
Sometimes our youth is marked by tragedy. And that’s the case for Emily Beam, whose boyfriend, Paul Wagoner, walks into the high school library and takes his own life. This is a story about teen pregnancy and suicide. But more, it’s a story about mistakes and the awful consequences of decisions, about the complete unraveling of a girl, and the role of female friendships, writing, and time in helping her survive.
Normally, I plug my nose at novels set at boarding schools in New England or whose narrative centers around the cheerleader-athlete-keg party set. However, nothing about this novel is stereotypical: not the characters, not Emily’s voice, and certainly not the depth and honestly with which Jenny Hubbard lays out the complicated moral questions of one girl’s life. The novel is interspersed with Emily’s free verse, inspired by the life and works of Emily Dickinson—which opened for me a thirst for diving back into the famous poet’s life.
You might already recognize Jenny Hubbard, whose debut novel Paper Covers Rock was a finalist for the William C. Morris Debut Novel award. My prediction is that Jenny Hubbard is at the start of a long, bright career—and we’ll all be better for it. I haven’t read a novel that moved me and troubled me this much in a long while. I hope it finds its way to the bookshelves of high school girls everywhere. -Meg
By Elizabeth Wein
Young adult (late middle school – adult)
2013 Michael Printz Honor Book * New York Times Bestseller * YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults Top Ten * 2012 Boston Globe Book Award Honor * Booklist Books for Youth Editors’ Choice 2012 * BookPage Best Children’s Book 2012 * Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books Blue Ribbons 2012 * Chicago Public Library Best of the Best 2012 * The Horn Book Magazine’s Best Books of 2012 * Kirkus Reviews Best Books of 2012 * Library Journals Best YA Books for Adults * New York Times Book Review Notable Children’s Books of 2012 * Publishers Weekly Best Books of 2012 * School Library Journal’s Best Books of the Year 2012 * Young Adult Novels You’ll Never Outgrow * National Public Radio’s Best Books 2012 series
There’s a particular alchemy of human beings at their worst that allows us to savor the beauty of simple people turned into heroes. I’ll point to Ann Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl and Mark Musak’s The Book Thief—just two of a long list. Now, I’ll count Elizabeth Wein’s remarkable novel, Code Name Verity, in that class, too.
The novel follows the friendship of two unconventional girls during World War II: mechanically-inclined Maddy, who becomes a pilot, and the wealthy and well-bred Julie, who becomes a German-speaking spy during the French occupation.
Written in the form of Julie’s forced confession at the hands of her Nazi interrogators, the novel immediately draws in the reader with mesmerizing details and tension. The violence is honest but not overly gory, and the voice often darkly funny, quite a feat for something set in a concentration camp. But it is in Part two, when Maddy picks up the narration, that the novel becomes truly heart-stopping. (To say more is a spoiler, sorry.)
This is historical fiction at its best—well-researched, plausible, never pedantic. As a writer, I consider what Elizbeth Wein has done here absolutely astonishing in its breadth and quality. But for me, this novel soars for strong girls because it is so clearly the story of resilient girls tested to their limit. It is the story of courage and war and of the frightening sacrifices we make for the ones we love. – Meg
By Tanita S. Davis
Young Adult, 12 and up
Random House, 2009
Additional formats: e-book, audio
NCTE Notable Children’s Books in the Language Arts* Cooperative Children’s Book Center Choice Award * Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People *Amelia Bloomer Selection *Best Books for Young Adults by YALSA *Coretta Scott King Author Honor *Junior Library Guild Selection *NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work for Youth *Chicago Public Libraries Best of the Best
What’s the particular story-alchemy that leaves you a completely satisfied reader? For me, a book that offers a road trip backdrop, a fabulous grandmother character, and an unexplored era of women’s history is the panacea. With Mare’s Ware, Tanita S. Davis delivers all that along with beautiful writing and strong voice. The story opens in northern California. It’s from fifteen year old Tali’s perspective that we first meet Mare, a sassy, 80+ year old grandma, who drives a red coupe like “a bat out of hell,” wears padded push-up bras and panties with a fake butt, and drinks strong bourbon drinks. Mare greets her granddaughters, Tali and Octavia, with a “whacked” idea to drive across the country to a family reunion 2,340 miles away somewhere in Alabama. Naturally, Tali and Octavia have bigger plans than hanging out with completely random Mare all summer – plans that include friends, boys, and more boys but decidedly do not include Mare. But the adults have already decided, despite their protestations .
The story alternates points of view between Mare’s of “Then” during World War II and “Now” during the mismatched trio’s road trip to Alabama . In the “Then” chapters, we meet seventeen year-old Mare who has lied about her age to join the African-American battalion of the Women’s Army Corp (WAC) in World War II. Through her recollections, we follow Mare’s own sort of road trip as a young solider from Alabama to Iowa to Birmingham, England, and, finally, Paris during the war. In the WAC, Mare learns new skills, makes friends from all-over, and experiences bitter racism in America and beyond. In the “Now” chapters, mostly told from Tali’s point of view but also with postcards and texts from Octavia, the girls at first resent being Mare’s captive audience. They’re so annoyed with Mare: she smokes long, skinny cigarettes, she’s a bad driver, and she has major stomach issues. And the sisters pluck each other’s nerves as well. But slowly, they come to appreciate that Mare is a treasure they have yet to fully discover.
Davis infuses Mare’s story with some of the most unforgettable characters in YA – Peaches, a sister-solider and closeted-lesbian-by-necessity in the WAC; Sister Dials, an elder of Mare’s church community back home; and Feen, Mare’s baby sister who’s getting an education in Philadelphia. I really love this book and am so grateful to the author for using her storytelling gift to lift up the sheroes of the Women’s Army Corps. GA
We here at Girls of Summer love a little scandal, especially if it involves strong, smart girls. So, we’re happy to include Margarita Engle’s latest novel-in-verse, The Lightning Dreamer, about Cuba’s great abolitionist poet, Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, whose work was once considered so scandalous for its interracial, feminist and abolitionist themes that it was burned.
Never heard of Avellaneda? No problem. Margarita Engle is a master at digging in the dark corners of history to shine a light on figures from Latin American history that you might not otherwise meet. And she does it with impressive results. Engle is the first Latina winner of the Newbery Honor Award, twice the recipient of the
prestigious Pura Belpre´ prize, and the recipient of the 2012 Américas Awards.
In The Lightning Dreamer, we meet Tula (Gómez de Avellaneda’s nickname) as a young girl growing up in early 19th century Cuba. This is the Cuba where slavery is the backbone of the sugar economy, where an educated woman is seen as a threat, and where Tula’s best choice for becoming well-read may actually lie behind the walls of a convent where her access to books would be unfettered.
Tula struggles against her mother’s plans for her marriage, and in this she has several key allies, including her faithful brother, Manuel. Despite every effort to the contrary, Tula awakens to the power of books, the outrage of her own situation, and to the abolitionist movement.
The story is told in Margarita Engle’s signature style: short poignant poems where each character is given a chance to speak. Tula’s voice is strong and unapologetic, but the secondary characters also build her world: her frustrated mother, Manuel, Caridad the servant, the orphans, and the nuns who prove to be pivotal in her education.
It has never been easy to be a strong girl, but Tula reminds us that female visionaries have existed in all countries throughout history. I admire this book for celebrating a woman who was ridiculed and shunned for having ideas that were far ahead of her time. MM
This collection of short stories is an older title (2004), but I’m so grateful that it was brought to my attention by our friends at The Open Book Foundation in Washington D.C.
Sharon Flake’s book is a collection of girls’ voices that spans everything from the marginalized and violent to the girl-next-door. In every case, we have a girl in relationship with a young man, and as we all know, that can mean drama. Girls will see themselves in these stories and the thoughtless (and even dangerous) boys who’ll sometimes cross their paths. The possibilities for conversation in a classroom, in a book club, and among friends are endless. How important are boys to your sense of self? What should you be willing to give away if anything at all? What does a respectful relationship look like when you’re fourteen? What are your responsibilities in a relationship?
I love this collection because it offers no easy answers, only the platform for good conversation. The characters (adults included) are layered, and their strengths and weaknesses make them hard to judge easily as victims or victimizers. I have to give a gold star for the hilarious “Girl, Didn’t I Say I Don’t Write Letters” about a forced pen-pal relationship between Jaquel and Devita Mae. But I’d run out of gold stars on this collection. I found something to love about virtually every tale here. Church girls stalking boys at a schoolyard behind their parents’ backs. Girls taking advantage of the intellectually disabled. Girls willing to fistfight “for their man.” Girls who want white boys. The options are dizzying and wonderful. MM
Lemon is seventeen and pregnant. The baby’s father is a stoned thirty-something tattoo artist—and now her mother’s latest fling.
So begins a raw and beautiful story about a girl who learns about the difference between intentions and actions –about her identity as a daughter, a romantic partner, and a loyal friend.
Lemon leaves school and embarks on a cross-country bus trip with her hard-partying friend, Emmy, in an attempt to reconnect with the father she never knew. Along the way, she is forced to makes sense of her troubled and self-centered mother, Stella, and come to terms with her own behavior with boys and men who clearly don’t value her.
It is fair to say that I would have loved this book as a young adult. As a mom, it made me lose sleep. That is not a bad thing. Sure, the novel has scenes that are very graphic, but here is the larger picture. KP Madonia writes with such unerring honesty about the hurts, large and small, that shape a girl, that the story transcends the discomfort it presents. Instead, it moves to the place where we keep those books that we all read in secret to find solace from our humiliations. It’s about that scary last sliver of childhood, when our bodies are grown, but our experience too spotty, that risky time that we all remember forever. MM
By Guadalupe Garcia McCall
Young adult, novel in verse
Ages 12 and up
Lee and Low Books, 2011
additional formats: e-book
Pura Belpré Author Award *William C. Morris YA Debut Award Finalist *Top Ten Best Fiction for Young Adults, YALSA *Best Teen Books of 2011, Kirkus *Tomas Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Award
I’ve been holding on to my copy of Under the Mesquite for a year, waiting patiently to add it to this list. It was my first selection for Girls of Summer 2013, and in my mind, a perfect choice.
The eldest of eight children living on the border of Texas and Mexico, Lupita is in high school, when her mother is diagnosed with uterine cancer. From the first pages where the illness is spoken of in hushed whispers, all the way to the scenes where Lupita finds herself alone to care for her messy brood, the novel is gripping.
The journey is universal, but its treatment of bicultural Latino life is especially strong (explaining her well-deserved Pura Belpré Award in January). The tortillas for breakfast. The relatives strewn on either side of the border. Her father’s job keeping him far away for weeks at a time. Her mother’s comrades – best friends – supporting Lupita and her siblings to keep them from starving. Even her mother’s frightening visit from Death who comes at night dressed as a bridal skeleton rings true.
Interestingly, McCall’s novel-in-verse began as a series of poems she wrote through the years with her students. These were personal pieces about her mother’s death that she would eventually knit into layered story that is as much about loss as it is about coming of age and hope. We see Lupita mourn for her mother and rage against the circumstances, but eventually, she leans on her gifts as a writer and actor help her survive.
A strong girl is sometimes called on to survive the unthinkable. Under the Mesquite is a look at a strong girl who has to find her sense of self while living through the darkest of days of all. It’s a celebration of strength and family. MM
By Dori Jones Yang
Random House/Delacorte Press, 2011
Awards/Recognitions: *Amelia Bloomer Project selection *Children’s Book Committee of Bank Street College of Education, Best Books of the Year *National Council for the Social Studies *Notable Trade Books for Young People
Set seven hundred years ago in Xanadu, the summer palace of Mongolian emperor Kubla Khan, Daughter of Xanadu is the story of Princess Emmajin, the Khan’s eldest granddaughter. Emmajin is athletic and headstrong and dreams of joining her grandfather’s army and becoming a legendary warrior. She is determined to take advantage of her last days of official childhood by competing in an archery contest between the young men of the royal court. Everyone but Suren, her best friend and eldest grandson of Kubla Khan, tries to block her from competing even though she’s grown up practicing the three superior arts: archery, horseback riding, and wrestling alongside the boys of Xanadu. These arts are the territory of men, yet because Emmajin excels in each of them, she has been allowed to participate. However once Emmajin and Suren turn sixteen, everything will change. Suren will become a warrior; Emmajin will be expected to marry.
In her final competition, Emmajin’s expertise and courage impress the Khan and the royal court. The Italian merchant Marco Polo has just arrived at the royal palace and as a reward for Emmajin’s brilliance, her grandfather assigns her to spy on Marco Polo and Marco’s father and uncle. She must report everything about these foreigners to her grandfather’s advisers. At first, Emmajin is disturbed by Marco Polo’s red hair and green eyes, but he’s such a kind and accepting person that despite her upbringing, Emmajin grows to like him. That presents a couple of problems.
Not only would loving Marco Polo always be a forbidden love, a romance of any kind would only distract her from her goal of gaining acceptance into the imperial army. While there’s some betrayal involved in Emmajin’s pursuit of her ambition to become a warrior, she wins the opportunity march with twelve thousand men on a secret mission to for the Khan.
And guess who goes along for the journey? Oh, I can’t tell you who. Yes, I can. Her cousin, Suren, goes with her. They are friends for life – the inhale to the other’s exhale. Emmajin proves herself on the battlefield next to Suren. She kills hundreds of the enemy’s soldiers, but she finds that becoming a legendary warrior carries an extraordinary cost and meeting Marco Polo changes how she defines enemy.
Daughter of Xanadu is a sweeping story of friendship, war, ambition, and romance in the Mongolian Empire. Dori Yang’s Emmajin is a heroine of ancient times and a shero for our time. History buffs, time travelers, and explorers of the internal and external worlds will love this book. GA
By Lila Quintero Weaver
Young adult/non-fiction/graphic format
The University of Alabama Press, 2012
I am so very proud to include this debut work in Girls of Summer. I had the pleasure of meeting the author at this year’s national Latino Children’s Literature Conference, where I sat utterly amazed by her talent and grace.
Set in Marion Alabama during the 1960s, Darkroom is a memoir in graphic novel format. It’s about growing up as the only Hispanic family in a town where racial tensions erupted into violence and murder during the Civil Rights era. Weaver, daughter of an amateur Argentine photographer, gives us an unflinching account of what she saw and how she grew to make sense of all that surrounded her.
Neither black nor white in the eyes of her neighbors, she felt shame at her own heritage, especially as she became increasingly conscious of the appalling racial injustice against blacks at the time. The memoir hinges on the events of a single night that ended in the death of a peaceful marcher, an event that would change her thinking forever.
We all know that children have never been exempt from history’s horrors. What’s remarkable here is how expertly Weaver has found an honest way to talk about this awful chapter in our country’s history – and how well she keeps us in the perspective of the young girl she once was. Her black and white illustrations are especially clever in partnerships with spare, elegant text. This is a writer who has depth and knows that her readers do, too.
I think young women reading this will find a doorway into history. So many of the events are disturbing. (The snapshot of the fourth grade history book is particularly alarming. And be warned: Weaver keeps true to ugly slurs of the time.) But I think strong girls will love this book because it’s a story of a girl who didn’t give in to the pressures around her. Instead, she learned to open her eyes to what was really around her and inside her. It’s a story of a shy, unsure girl finding her voice at a dangerous time. MM
By Jennifer Donnelly
Harcourt Books, 2003
ISBN: 978-0-15-216705-9/978-0-15-205310-9 (paperback)
Awards/recognitions: *Printz Honor Book *ALA “Top Ten” Best Book for Young Adults *Booklist Editor’s Choice *Booklist Top Ten Youth First Novel *Book Sense 76 Top Ten Book for Teens *Junior Library Guild Selection *A New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age *A Parent’s Guide Children’s Media Young Adult Honor Book *A Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year *A School Library Journal Best Book of the Year
This is our oldest selection for Girls of Summer, and I couldn’t be more committed to including this title. It debuted when I was writing my first novel, and I still remember closing the book and wondering if I would ever be able to write something that felt so completely satisfying. Jennifer Donnelly has gone on to write other acclaimed titles, but none have earned my heart the way this one did as a word geek, as a writer, as a feminist, and as a fan of good whodunit.
It’s 1906, and Mattie Gokey, working as a hotel domestic for the summer, finds herself faced with a girl drowned in the lake – and a pocketful of letters the girl asked her to burn. So begins the unraveling of a sad mystery based on the scandalous real-life death of skirt factory employee Grace Brown, whose untimely death was the basis for Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy and later, the Academy-award winning movie, A Place in the Sun.
In Donnelly’s deft hands, however, Grace Brown’s death is a parallel to the larger conflict for Mattie: being a girl robbed of choices. A deathbed promise to her mother has left Mattie caring for her three sisters and father, who are struggling with the daily demands of keeping up a farm. Her dreams to study at Barnard, where she has already been accepted, are at odds with virtually every reality in her life: her promise, her father’s wishes, and the social mores for women of the time. The future she wants is on a collision course with the approval of her entire social circle, including Royal Loomis, the handsome young man every girl should want.
Mattie is a girl searching for the words to name and explain her experience, words that are too big, too scary for all but her dearest friends. In the end, like all strong girls, she has to ask herself the hard questions and find her own answers. What defines a woman as respectable – or conversely, as dangerous, immoral, and even a lunatic? Who gets to make those definitions? Populated with a cast of layered and contradictory characters, A Northern Light gives us a story about people, motives, and the tough choices we make in order to find ourselves. MM