All great authors start somewhere. For Lois Lowry, two-time Newbery medalist and staple on middle school reading lists, it was A Summer to Die which began her career. Has this novel about losing a sister stood the test of time?
A Summer to Die
Meg is jealous of her older sister Molly. After all, Molly is pretty and popular, a cheerleader who can’t wait to get married and have babies. Meg, on the other hand, wears glasses and Molly’s hand-me-downs, and she dreams about getting a job and making a difference in the world. They may not be alike, but they are sisters, forced to share a room when their parents move to a small house in the New England countryside. While their father uses the quiet to write his book, their mother works on a quilt made from the girls’ old clothes. Meg explores her new home, taking photographs and making friends with elderly neighbor Will and the young couple Ben and Maria. But Molly . . . Molly is getting sick. As the year passes and the summer begins, Meg will realize just how sick her sister is.
Reading A Summer to Die takes the reader back to a different time. In some ways, it’s a simpler time, such as the concerns over whether Ben and Maria are married. Maria’s feisty brand of feminism is contrasted with the innocence of Meg. Although she’s thirteen, there’s no talk about boys she likes or trying on makeup. She’s envious of fifteen-year-old Molly because she has a figure and because Molly knows what she wants out of life. Nowadays, it’s rare to see a teenage girl saying she wants to get married and have babies. Molly serves as a symbol of how much society has changed since 1977.
Or has it? Look at bump watches, overseas adoptions, and lavish weddings. Could it be that we still think all women want to be wives and mothers? Perhaps the real lesson to take from A Summer to Die is that in this great big world of ours, there’s room for all kinds of female lifestyles. It’s okay if you want to marry and have children, but it’s equally okay if you want to have a career and change the world. Now you don’t even have to choose–you can have it all. Not that having it all isn’t without its share of challenges!
Yet A Summer to Die is not just about women and girls in society. It’s the story of Meg, learning to appreciate Molly just as the time comes when she won’t have her sister anymore. There are many books that explore loss and grief, yet the sensitivity and kindness of Lowry’s treatment shines brightly among these novels. While A Summer to Die has slid down towards juvenile fiction since its original publication, it’s still a wonderful read. It doesn’t have the maudlin sentimentality of other “death and dying” novels. If your library, like mine, has A Summer to Die in the children’s collection, encourage your younger teen patrons to give it a try. What’s more, older tweens could be introduced to Lois Lowry before being assigned The Giver. Either way, take a trip back in time by reading this honest novel about sisterly grief.