From the BLURB:
Drew's a bit of a loner. She has a pet rat, her dead dad's Book of Lists, an encyclopedic knowledge of cheese from working at her mom's cheese shop, and a crush on Nick, the surf bum who works behind the counter. It's the summer before eighth grade and Drew's days seem like business as usual, until one night after closing time, when she meets a strange boy in the alley named Emmett Crane. Who he is, why he's there, where the cut on his cheek came from, and his bottomless knowledge of rats are all mysteries Drew will untangle as they are drawn closer together, and Drew enters into the first true friendship, and adventure, of her life.
Drew Robin ‘Birdie’ Solo is reflecting on the summer that changed everything, at least, to her young mind.
In 1986, Drew was 13. She and her mother lived in a small Californian coastal town and her mother had just opened a boutique cheese shop on Euclid Avenue (which will one day prosper, but for now is a little run-down). It was just Drew and her mum for years, because Drew’s dad (for whom she is named) died when she was little, after his body ‘gave up living’.
It was school holidays when the cheese shop opened, and her mother employed handsome nineteen-year-old surfer, Nick Drummond, to help make pasta and be a general handyman. Nick became the object of Drew’s young, unrequited affections throughout that summer. And then there was Swoozie, a divorcée who stopped by the little town on the way to someplace else but decided to stay.
And, of course, there’s His Excellency the Lord High Rat Humboldt Fog – otherwise known as ‘Hum’, Drew’s pet rat.
The summer was already shaping up to be different from any other – what with Drew having a steady (if, unpaying) job at the cheese shop with the handsome Nick, and her mother weighted down with all the worry of a new business owner. And Drew’s distant friends were even more distant – all three being overseas on an acting camp. She was all alone, save for Hum.
And then she discovered a book of lists from her dad, who she never knew. Drew Solo amassed a collection of lists, presumably for his young daughter to one day find. He listed; worst mistakes, most embarrassing moments, worst traits and many, many more for Drew to slowly pick through and wonder over.
But the real butterfly-flapping of the summer didn’t begin until Drew met Emmett Crane in the alley behind the cheese shop one night. About her age, Emmett seemed to be a rat-whisperer with a penchant for exotic cheese. He was beautiful, but mysterious, and claimed to have moved into his father’s bachelor pad somewhere in town (though he won’t say more than that).
As the summer unfolded, so too did Emmett’s story and all the little flaps and acts that turned the Summer of 1986 into Drew’s most life-changing and memorable.
‘The Summer I Learned to Fly’ was a 2011 young adult novel by Dana Reinhardt.
What immediately struck me with ‘The Summer I Learned to Fly’ was Drew’s unwavering belief that these were the moments and times that set her on the path she’s currently treading. She is recounting the tale of Summer 86’ from somewhere in the future (and we don’t learn how far until the very end). Her narrative voice has matured, but she still remembers all the hopes, loves, fears and lonesomeness of her 13-year-old self.
There wasn’t anything I could have done to prevent what happened, short of some random act that changed all the random acts that would follow.
I knew the theory about the butterfly flapping its wings in the jungle. How everything happens because of the flapping. But I didn’t live in the jungle. I lived in the middle of California on a jagged edge of continent. I was smaller than a butterfly. I was a speck.
What happened had nothing at all to do with me, with what I did or didn’t do, but that wasn’t how it felt at the time.
In most ways, the little events that changed Drew’s life ended up being monumental. But some remained small and significant only to her; exploded and expanded by young eyes. What I loved was that Reinhardt treated the big and little things with the same importance, because they mattered to Drew and clearly imprinted on her young heart.
This may be an older Drew narrating, but she slips back into her younger self very easily. And young Drew was quite a lonely child, reliant on a team of two with her mother and having few friends at school. It’s actually a kindly older town lady who gifts Hum to Drew, upon noticing that she could use a friend. And then Drew’s equilibrium is thrown when her mother starts drowning in cheese shop work, and maybe even dusting off her social life after missing her dead husband for so many years. Drew’s world is thrown entirely off kilter, and one of the few changes she appreciates is lovely Nick Drummond – a kind surfer boy who wastes his potential, has blinkers to Drew’s affections but is a worthy outlet for her first young crush.
And then there’s Emmett Crane; the boy who appears in the alleyway one night and becomes Drew’s first real (human) friend, despite the fact that she knows nothing about him. Readers will know this is no ordinary teenage boy pretty quickly, for his quiet seriousness and gentle nature so at odds with his age. I loved him, and I loved how Reinhardt masterfully wrote him with both a wonderful sense of hope and sinking suspicion of foreboding. It’s easy to see why Emmett Crane has such a starring-role in Drew’s hindsight highlights.
I also loved that while the book is set in 1986, Reinhardt doesn’t get bogged down in era-setting. There’s no lengthy descriptions of 80s shoulder-pads dressing, synth-pop ruling the radio or anything else to detract from Drew’s quiet and beautiful life-changing summer. You actually forget that this is set in the 80s because Reinhardt has, I think, chosen this time-period so as to avoid modern technological distractions like the internet and mobile phones.
I also adored the ending, mostly because it allowed me to have my own theories about butterfly-flapping and the characters in the book. For instance, when I read the epilogue I remembered a previous scene in which a busker Emmett introduces to Drew explains that he’s been playing songs for enough money to get him halfway round the world to find a girl (the girl).
‘The Summer I Learned to Fly’ is glorious. I loved the duality of Drew’s 13-year-old worries and life changes, coupled with the wisdom of her first-person narration, gained from looking back through the years. The ending is wide open and full of possibilities, which is just what I hoped for Drew ‘Birdie’ Solo.