Sunday, January 13, 2008

Betsy Byars

The Summer of the Swans
by Betsy Byars
Recommended Age: 12+

The author of After the Goat Man, The House of Wings, Trouble River, and The Cybil War won the Newbery Medal for this book in 1971. It doesn't actually tell about the whole summer. It all happens in two days' time.

But in those two days you learn a lot about what ails Sara Godfrey. Mainly, it seems (though the book never comes right out and says it) that she is suffering from puberty. But she thinks it's because her nose is crooked, her feet are big, and her orange sneakers make her look like Donald Duck; and she knows that looks matter, no matter what everyone says about other things being more important.

Sara has other things on her mind as well. Discontent brews within her, fueled by envy of her beautiful older sister; the coarseness of her Aunt Willie, who has raised them since their mother died; the disinterest of her father who works in another state; and (she guiltily admits to herself) how she chafes against the constraints of caring for her 10-year-old, brain-damaged brother, Charlie.

Though he is sometimes a nuisance, Sara cares about him. One thing she can never forgive is anyone hurting or making sport of Charlie, and when she thinks a boy in her neighborhood has done just this, she can never get enough revenge on him.

But then comes the day when everyone gets up in the morning and Charlie isn't there. He has wandered away in the night, preoccupied with looking at the swans his sister showed him yesterday. He gets lost in the woods, confused, scared, helpless. Suddenly nothing matters more to Sara than finding him--even her grudge against Joe Melby.

In one simple, brief incident in the life of a fourteen-year-old girl, Betsy Byars creates both a small-town neighborhood that seems real, and a whole world of complex emotions swirling through a girl's veins. It's hard to say which is the more impressive achievement. Not only that, but the misadventure of little Charlie is apt to leave you breathless with fear and concern. Finding him really does make a lot of difference, not only for him but for his confused and self-conscious sister, their aunt, the boy down the street, even the whole neighborhood. Add the enigmatic beauty of swans, the goodness and not-so-goodness of regular people, and the pains of growing up, and you get a book that makes you want to seek out other books by the same author.

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