I recently listened to a middle-grade audiobook, Swing Sideways by Nanci Turner Steveson, a debut author. This story of a summer friendship between two girls is warm, tender, and full of adventure.
Annabel and her parents arrive at the cottage on a lake in rural New York where her family has spent every summer (and her parents spent their childhood summers as well!), but this summer is different. Annabel has an eating disorder, and her therapist has made her mother promise to give Annabel some – in fact, a lot of - freedom this summer. Her mother normally fills her days with scheduled activities, kept track of via a spreadsheet stuck on the refrigerator door, but this summer, she is supposed to let Annabel do whatever she wants…with no schedule or spreadsheet.
On their way to the house the first day, Annabel spots a girl about her age at a farm down the road, and she knows exactly what she wants to do with her summer. The girl is running through fields and climbing trees, in bare feet and with her hair loose and tangled. She waves when Annabel and her family pass, and Annabel can’t wait to go back to the farm and meet the girl. She looks like she lives the kind of country life Annabel has always dreamed of – she adores books like the Little House books that tell of a rural life.
The next day, Annabel runs down to the farm and meets California, the girl she spotted the day before. California was brought up on a commune with her mother and is full of energy and enthusiasm. She is spending the summer with her grandfather who has cancer. Caught up in the excitement of freedom and new experiences, Annabel introduces herself as Annie, and her summer of freedom and adventure begins.
Annie and California spend their days outdoors on the farm, climbing trees (California teaches Annie how), picking raspberries and eating them right from the vine, and swimming in the river. Annie’s mother would not approve of any of this and is appalled when Annie shows up for dinner dirty and with messed-up hair, but she keeps her end of the deal and doesn’t nag. The two girls eventually settle on a special quest: California wants to find the ponies that meant so much to her mother when she was young, to lure her mother back to the farm and fix whatever caused the rift between her mother and grandfather. She thinks the ponies are loose in the wild around the farm somewhere, so the two girls search every day.
This is a story about friendship, but it is so much more than that. Both girls are suffering in their own ways and in need of healing that this special summer can provide. There are plenty of secrets, here, too, not just between the girls but family secrets that they will uncover as well. As their friendship blossoms and grows, the two girls grow close to each other and when needed, learn how to be brave. It’s a summer of growth for both of them and of healing for their families.
I enjoyed this fast-paced, warm novel very much. It’s one of those books that slowly steals your heart as you come to care for the characters. Children will love all of the adventures the two girls experience, but this is also a story with plenty of heart (and a few tears, too). It is sad at times, but mostly, it is a story about hope and healing and the power of friendship.