YA Reads: Oh, What a Summer

What better way to celebrate summer, than with these reads? From the dark and thrilling to first loves and summer camp, we’ve got it all! Let us ring in this humid season with some great stories. 

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

Cadence Sinclair is enthralled by fairytales. And her blonde, beautiful, and affluent family resembles characters in one—but Cady knows it’s a Grimm sort of fairytale.  

The Sinclairs are the kind of rich that don’t just summer on an island, they own the island. But neither Cady’s mother or her two aunts ever built their own careers, and they are financially dependent on their father. A noxious mix of entitlement and genuine fear about the future drives a wedge between the sisters and the rest of the family.  

Cady and her cousins Johnny and Mirren are the oldest of the grandkids. And together with Gat, the nephew of an aunt’s partner and Cady’s love interest, they form the Liars. The Liars are close and spending time with each other is what makes summers on the island so wonderful. 

But Summer 15 is not wonderful. It follows the death of Cady’s grandmother, which sets off fights between the parents over their share of the inheritance. Summer 15 is the Sinclairs at their worst—greedy, manipulative, scheming. That’s what Cady remembers. There’s also a lot Cady doesn’t remember.  

At some point during Summer 15, there was a horrible accident. Cady was injured and is still suffering from amnesia. Her mother refuses to tell her what happened, or even let her return to the island. It’s not until Summer 17, she goes back. 

I first read We Were Liars with my teen book club, and the thing that struck all of us was how obscene and tragic the Sinclairs were. Their wealth is a shield that traps them with each other. And while it’s clear there is love between family members, there’s also a lot of spite, resentment, and arrogance. 

Cady is not a sympathetic protagonist, but she is a fascinating one. She’s an unreliable narrator, but just self-aware enough to describe the unravelling of her family as a dark fairytale, with only one kind of ending. If you like stories with a twist, check this one out. 

Honor Girl by Maggie Thrash

And speaking of going away for the summer, it’s camp time! Honor Girl is Thrash’s memoir, focused on a summer spent at Camp Bellflower. The year is—sometime in the 2000s, the place is—somewhere in rural Kentucky. Camp Bellflower is a traditional kind of camp. Think daily Civil War reenactments. 

While that might make many a reader cringe, it’s also easy to see why Maggie Thrash and other young girls liked their summers there. Many of them have been going to Camp Bellflower for years and they’re a close-knit group.  

For Maggie, going to camp is something she does every summer and mostly enjoys. But when she’s 15, she meets Erin, a cool, older girl, who’s the new camp counselor. This summer, camp is where Maggie realizes she likes girls and falls in love for the first time.  

There is an aching to this memoir. Maggie’s intense feelings for Erin are contrasted with her fear of being ostracized. The 2000s were not a kind time for queer youth, and at Camp Bellflower, lesbian is word you whisper in gossip. It’s not a word you call yourself. Maggie knows this, and the ecstasy of first love is combined with the queasiness of being outed and the hyperawareness of being noticed.

A teenager falling in love at camp is an old story, and it should be a simple one. But homophobia is an inextricable part of Camp Bellflower and it permeates Maggie’s first brush with genuine attraction.  

No doubt Maggie wanted it to be simple, and that sentiment is well represented by the clean scenes and quiet color palette. Soft yellows and gentle lines help accentuate the bittersweetness of the summer of Maggie’s first love. 

If beautiful and kinda sad, realistic fiction is your jam, you’ll enjoy Honor Girl. 

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Thrash’s graphic novel goes back 20 years (yes, the 2000s were 20 years ago), and now we’re going back 20 years further! 

Set in El Paso, Texas, in the 1980s, Sáenz’s novel is a quiet story about two boys going through the growing pains of adolescence and falling in love. Ari is our protagonist. He has 1.) an estranged brother in prison, 2.) a dad who left Vietnam more closed off than ever, and 3.) a tendency to keep to himself. Is it a surprise he’s a loner?

Then, one summer at a pool, Aristotle Mendoza meets Dante Quintana. Dante is smart, talkative, passionate, and he wears his softness on his sleeve. Ari’s never met someone like him before and the two quickly become friends.

Between conversations about parents, being Mexican, and everything under the sun, Ari’s guard starts to come down. Towards the end of the summer, something happens that brings Ari, Dante, and their families closer together. It happens around the same time Dante has to leave with his family for a year. At the end of this summer, it’s clear the two will miss each dearly. 

What’s also clear is Dante's feelings for Ari, which Ari acknowledges, but rebuffs. Although the two stay best friends, the tension between them slowly builds, especially once Dante returns to town next summer. 

Sáenz is an incredibly gifted writer, and there’s not much praise that can be heaped upon Aristotle and Dante that hasn’t already been. The style is lyrical, but not flowery. The writing is simple and does a wonderful job of conveying how hard it is for Ari to embrace change and vulnerability.  

Sáenz remembers what people so often forget—being a teenager means standing on a precipice between a familiar world you have started to outgrow and a wider one of doubt and wonder.  

The last third of the book handles Ari’s relationships to his family, Dante, and himself with such care. There are fraught conversations, confrontations, and realizations all coming to a head in this amazing, difficult, second summer. 

I recommend this read, wholeheartedly. 

Along for the Ride by Sarah Dessen

And now, let us draw to a close with lighter, but still thoughtful fare. I’ve read quite a few of Dessen’s books, and summer is a recurring theme. My favorite of her novels, since I was a teen myself, is Along for the Ride. 

Auden, our protagonist, is not like other girls. Even her name, as her father likes to point out, is special. But this is the summer when she starts to wonder how much of that is because of her parents. Both are intellectuals, her mom a brilliant literature professor and her dad, a gifted and recognized writer. 

They pushed Auden to excel in academics, and then, when their marriage started to break down, she drowned herself in school. Now, she’s poised to go to college, only to realize she’s been adulting for most of her life. 

Auden’s childhood was studying, attending her mom’s highbrow wine parties, and relentless insomnia. So, when her dad invites her to spend the summer with him at a local beach town, she accepts. Even though it also means spending time with her new stepmom Heidi, a young and perky woman she only tolerates—and her newborn half-sister. 

It’s a rocky start, especially when Auden first mixes with teens her own age. The world of normal teens seems like a faraway one. 

But there is one person Auden feels less weird around. Eli, a quiet, fellow insomniac. Unlike Auden, Eli is a local and well-liked. But a personal tragedy led to him pushing his friends away. They begin to hang out at night, and somehow Eli comes up with a quest for Auden—to complete a series of all the kid activities she missed out on, food fights, parties, bowling, etc. Auden is skeptical at first, but starts to look forward to it. 

Auden opens up, not just to Eli, but to her new stepfamily, and to the other girls who work at Heidi’s clothing store. Including Maggie, who Auden initially dismissed as the girliest of girly girls. But Maggie, and girly stuff, isn’t that bad. In fact, girly stuff, kid stuff, fun stuff—Auden finds herself liking it. For all the responsibilities she's shouldered, Auden is still a kid. She does want validation and friends. She just doesn’t know how to connect with people and comes off as judgy and self-centered. 

Seeing Auden form relationships with people is thrilling. The romance between her and Eli is a realistic slow burn. It’s a small town, and they’re on the outside of it.

But what truly stole the show for me, was her friendships with Maggie and the other girls. Spending time with them changes how Auden thinks of girls and herself. Sweet too, is the gradual deepening of her ties to Heidi and her baby sister. 

If you like characters who can change, and summers that end just right, Along for the Ride is the perfect read.