✨ Spoiler Free ✨
Author: Akemi Dawn Bowman
Publication year: 2018
Content warnings: Character death, loss of a loved one, grief/loss, car accident, abandonment by a parent (temporary), depression and violence.
Following the loss of her sister in a tragic accident, 17-year-old Rumi is sent to Hawaii to live with her aunt. She begins to pick up the pieces of her broken heart and heal, with the help of friends, old and new.
What I liked
- Writing style
- Emphasis on friendship and family
- Diverse representation
- Deep exploration of grief
- The questioning sexuality storyline / aromantic and asexual representation
What I disliked
- Under-developed characters
- Lack of plot
- Over emphasis on emotion/grief in places
Plot and Structure
The story follows Rumi as she deals with the loss of her best friend and younger sister, Lea. It’s not a particularly plot heavy book, it’s an intense look at grief and loss, and how we can begin to rebuild ourselves when our world has been completely shattered by the loss of someone that is fundamental to who we are and to our lives. It focuses mostly on Rumi’s emotions and healing process. Despite not having a strong plot, narratively, it was strong and had a clear focus. It felt like Akemi Dawn Bowman knew exactly what she wanted to achieve with this book and that every part of it was intentional.
It opens with the tragedy that sets the scene for the rest of the book. It’s mostly set in the present where Rumi is living in Hawaii with her estranged aunt and follows Rumi as she battles against the grief of losing her sister and her mother’s absence. Alongside that, we see the development of the relationships that she forms in Hawaii and how these people help her to heal. There are also flashbacks scattered throughout of Rumi’s life growing up with her family which help to flesh out Lea and the significance of the sister relationship that is at the heart of the story.
I really liked the writing style. Whilst this is clearly a YA book aimed at a younger audience, it had some beautiful metaphors and prose that conveyed the intensity of emotion present throughout. There were a lot of quotes I resonated with and found to be very meaningful. However, there were some metaphors that were a bit cringe and the writing was repetitive in places. The main weakness of the writing for me was that the emotion was emphasised too much. Grief is an overwhelming and all consuming emotion but the emotions were over-written and it bogged down the narrative too much. There needed to be more space from the raw emotions to enable the characters and other aspects of the story to breathe. The character development and plot was hindered in part because the grief was inescapable and constantly brought to the forefront. Nonetheless, I appreciated how Bowman was able to get to the crux of the intense emotions that teenagers often face and how lost in their own feelings and thoughts they can become. Rumi’s grief isn’t any ordinary grief; it’s heightened by her age and the lack of self that often happens to teenagers who are figuring out who they are.
And maybe that’s like life. You live for a moment—one single moment. And then you don’t matter. Because there are years of the past and years of the future, and we’re all simply one tiny blip in time—a surge of water waiting to leave our mark on the sand, only to have it washed away by the waves that come after us.
Characters and Relationships
I adored what Bowman did in terms of centring platonic relationships and how she really took the time to delve deep into Rumi’s inner-most thoughts and feelings. Rumi’s relationships with her sister, elderly neighbour, male friend, aunt and mother are the most important relationships in this book and it was so refreshing to read a contemporary YA that wasn’t focused on romance. As a character, Rumi was perhaps one of the most relatable characters I’ve read in a long time to the point that it felt like I was reading about my teenage self at points. Unfortunately, the other characters never felt fully realised to me and were rather one-dimensional. Their purpose was to serve Rumi’s development and journey in supporting her through her grief. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but just means that the wider cast of characters were lacking in any real depth or development.
The depiction of sibling relationships was one of my favourite aspects of this book. As the eldest sister myself, I could see how shaped Rumi was by being the eldest sister and how that informed the relationship she had with Lea. Throughout the book Lea is considered to be Rumi’s soul mate and the most important person in her life. Just like Disney’s Frozen this book subverts expectations that a young girl’s “one true love” is a romantic male love interest and instead portrays it as being sisterhood. I also loved reading about Rumi’s relationship with her friend Kai and seeing her battle against the blurred lines between friendship and romance, and how this impacted her exploration of her sexuality.
Generally, I loved the exploration of sexuality throughout and how Rumi’s character and her relationships were all tied up in a wider story of her exploring aromanticism and asexuality. It’s the first time I’ve read a fiction book that explores this so succinctly. It can be difficult to write storylines that involve questioning sexuality without it feeling forced, but in this case, Rumi’s questioning of her identity and sexuality fitted well with the wider story of loss. Losing Lea is what put Rumi in a real position to truly start exploring those parts of her that had always been there but that she had brushed under the carpet. I plan to do a separate post about the depiction of aromanticism and asexuality in the book soon, so keep your eyes peeled if you’re interested in hearing more of my thoughts on this 👀
Generally, the relationships were very sweet and drove the story forward well, but the characters (except for Rumi) lacked the necessary depth to enable me to connect to them on a deeper level. So whilst I enjoyed reading the character dynamics they weren’t as satisfying as they could’ve been. I think if Bowman had invested more time in developing the characters and less on the grief part of the story, it would’ve come together much better. Since the relationships were so pivotal in helping Rumi to begin to heal, it felt like they deserved more time and attention.
Summer Bird Blue is a heart-wrenching and heart–warming story of loss and healing. It’s an ideal read for young readers as it explores so many of the painful things teenagers face such as unexpected death, identity crisis, abandonment by a parent, anger, having complicated feelings for friends and questioning your sexuality. The focus on platonic love and relationships is a breath of fresh air and the exploration of identity and sexuality an important conversation to be had in any YA book. Undoubtedly, the depiction of an aromantic asexual character is what will continue to draw readers to this book and is what shines most about it, but this book is so much more than that and is fully deserving of the credit it receives. It tackles such a hard and heavy subject with sensitivity and grace, balancing the hopelessness of death with the hope of healing.
I’d recommend Summer Bird Blue if:
You’re looking for a YA tale on the theme of grief that centres sisterhood, friendship and family and features an aromantic asexual main character.
Have you read Summer Bird Blue or are you planning to read it? Let me know in the comments!
Stay safe, my lovelies and keep reading.