A mixed race teen struggles to find her way back to her love of music in the wake of her sister’s tragic death in this incisive, lyrical novel that’s perfect for fans of Nicola Yoon and Jennifer Niven, by the author of William C. Morris Award finalist Starfish.
Rumi Seto spends a lot of time worrying she doesn’t have the answers to everything. What to eat, where to go, whom to love. But there is one thing she is absolutely sure of—she wants to spend the rest of her life writing music with her younger sister, Lea.
Then Lea dies in a car accident, and her mother sends her away to live with her aunt in Hawaii while she deals with her own grief. Now thousands of miles from home, Rumi struggles to navigate the loss of her sister, being abandoned by her mother, and the absence of music in her life. With the help of the “boys next door”—a teenage surfer named Kai, who smiles too much and doesn’t take anything seriously, and an eighty-year-old named George Watanabe, who succumbed to his own grief years ago—Rumi attempts to find her way back to her music, to write the song she and Lea never had the chance to finish.
Aching, powerful, and unflinchingly honest, Summer Bird Blue explores big truths about insurmountable grief, unconditional love, and how to forgive even when it feels impossible.
*Starred Review* For Rumi Seto, creating music with her younger sister, Lea, was everything. But when Lea dies in a car accident, Rumi's life is over, too. Beset by survivor's guilt, she is plagued by the knowledge that Lea was the outgoing, perfect daughter who was closest to their mamo (mother). When Mamo sends Rumi to live with Aunt Ani in Hawaii, Rumi plunges into bottomless grief, constantly reminding herself that Mamo abandoned her because she loved Lea more. Rumi also mourns the loss of music and feels unable to recapture what she had with Lea, until she meets the two "boys" next door: lovable teen surfer Kai Yamada, who offers easygoing friendship, and gruff 80-year-old George Watanabe, who understands the pain that consumes her. Strengthened by their honest and individual outlooks on life, Rumi plumbs her courage to complete her and Lea's unfinished song and find the will to live again. Rumi's narration, fueled by raw and intense emotions, will leave readers breathless. Memories of Lea are smartly unfurled, allowing fascinating glimpses into the sisters' bond. Bowman, whose Starfish (2017) was a Morris Award finalist, proves again that she isn't afraid to dive headlong into challenging issues, such as asexuality, grief, resentment, and forgiveness. This beautiful story sparkles as its complex characters dare to find footholds in the seemingly inescapable dark. Grades 7-12. Copyright 2018 Booklist Reviews.
Music helps a Washington state teenager overcome guilt and grief after the death of her beloved younger sister. After a car accident that takes the life of Rumi Seto's younger sister, Lea, Rumi feels guilt about surviving and is certain that her mother wishes Rumi had died instead. With her mother checked out and blank with sorrow, an angry, hardened Rumi is sent to stay with her Aunty Ani in Hawaii, where she meets a host of local characters, including Kai, a charismatic half-Korean/half-Japanese boy. Rumi also spends some time with Mr. Watanabe, her aunt's gruff elderly neighbor, who has dealt with his own tragedy. Eventually, as Rumi is able to find her way back to the music she and Lea had shared and write the song that she believes she owes her sister, she becomes able to fully grieve. She also makes a discovery that helps reconcile her with her mother. Rumi's mother is half-Japanese/half-Hawaiian, and her estranged father is white. Accurately reflecting the setting, the book is populated with a host of hapa (biracial) and Asian- and Pacific Islander-American characters. One subplot follows Rumi as she becomes comfortable with her aromantic and asexual feelings. Convincing local details and dialogue, masterful writing, and an emotionally cathartic climax make this book shine. A strikingly moving book about teenage grief. (Fiction. 12-18) Copyright Kirkus 2018 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.
Summer Bird Blue
Lea’s face lights up like every star in the sky just turned on at once. “I love it.”
Mom looks over her shoulder, the arch in her brow a mix of curiosity and amusement. She’s heard us play this game a thousand times, but she still doesn’t fully understand it.
I don’t blame her. Most people think Lea and I are two of the weirdest people in the universe when we’re writing songs.
“What does a bird have to do with summer or blue?” Mom asks.
Lea and I speak at the exact same time, our voices colliding against each other’s like cymbals.
“It doesn’t have to make sense.”
“You’re interrupting our vibe.”
Mom laughs. Her eyes meet mine in the rearview mirror. “I think ‘black’ would’ve given you more options. Shama thrush are beautiful songbirds, you know.”
I glance at Lea and make a face. “What is she talking about?” I whisper.
“No idea,” Lea whispers back. “I think she’s just making up words.”
Mom lets out a mock groan. “Fine. I’ll just sit here quietly, the unpaid taxi driver whose daughters won’t talk to her.”
I laugh. Lea leans forward and plants a kiss on Mom’s freckled cheek, their faces blending together like a blur of bronze skin and curls the color of burnt coffee.
My hair isn’t wild like theirs—it’s long and straight, probably because I’m not wild at all. They’re the ones who go on all the roller coasters, sing in public, and dance to every song on the radio.
I’m more of a sideline kind of girl. I live vicariously through them.
Mom tilts her head back and purses her lips. “What about you, Rumi? Got a kiss for your mom?”
“I’m good,” I say, rolling my eyes as Lea settles back next to me. It’s not that I don’t love my mother, but I’m not really the affectionate type. I’d blame it on the fact that I’m going to be a senior this fall, but Lea is going to be a sophomore and she still hasn’t outgrown Mom’s hugs.
Maybe it’s because Lea is a way nicer person than I am. It makes sense—she’s a giggler. And people who giggle are either incredibly annoying or so over-the-top nice you feel obligated to forgive them for it.
There’s nobody in the world who would call Lea annoying. Not even me, and I’m usually annoyed by most things with faces.
Mom lets out a gentle sigh. “I’ll try not to take it personally.”
You know how some people have resting bitch face? I have relaxed jerk voice. Lea insists this is a real thing. She says I always sound like I’m barking instead of talking. So to compensate, I use the sandwich method.
A compliment, followed by my real thoughts, followed by a compliment. It was Lea’s idea I sarcastically agreed to go along with, but for some reason it’s kind of stuck.
“Your hair smells like flowers. Kissing makes me feel like you’re violating my personal space. I like your lip gloss.”
Lea coughs her laughter into the back of her hand. Mom looks at me with half-hearted disapproval.
There’s a journal sitting in the space between Lea and me. It’s sky blue and covered in tiny white stars, with an R and an L drawn on the cover in black Sharpie.
I pick it up, splitting the book open with my thumb, and flip through pages and pages of lyrics Lea and I have been working on all year. They were all inspired by three words, too. It’s our game—to think of the first three things that come to us and write a song about them.
Some of them are funny. “Love String Macaroni.” “House Ghost Marshmallow.”
Some of them are dark. “Earth Blood Iron.” “Lost Wings Ice.”
But they are all us—Lea and me—and that counts for a lot.
I write “Summer Bird Blue” on a new page and tap the end of my pen against the lined paper.
Lea sniffs beside me. She pats her hand against her thigh, a beat that reminds me of a song we once wrote about a boy who still doesn’t know she exists. “Every summer I remember what it’s like,” she starts to sing.
I close my eyes. “To feel the warmth against my skin.”
“You know just how to take the sun away,” she continues.
“And it’s winter when I look at you again.” I peel my eyes open and find Lea smiling at me.
Something rushes through my body, as if my blood has been replaced with starlight. I feel like magic, and wonder, and pure happiness. And when I look at Lea, my fifteen-year-old sister who glows and shimmers and is everything good that I’m not, I know she feels the same way.
Music is what makes up the single soul we share. I don’t think I’ll ever find another person in the entire world who understands me the way Lea does. We’re the only two people in the universe who speak our language.
Lea throws me a thumbs-up. “I like it.”
“I can’t wait to get back to my piano,” I say.
Mom slows the car down. Another red light. She looks up at us in the mirror. “But where’s the blue bird? I thought you were singing about a blue bird?”
We talk over each other again, like sisters with the same thought but different words.
“God, Mom, let it die.”
“You don’t get us at all.”
And then the three of us are laughing, and pretty soon it’s just one loud sound that harmonizes together. Mom, Lea, and me. The song of our family.
The light turns green up ahead, and Mom pulls away, still smiling.
It’s hard to explain what I see next. Nothing at first, and then something so dark and big that it shields all the light from the window. But I do hear the sounds.
A crash, like every chime and timpani and gong colliding all at once.
Shattering glass, like stars exploding into dust.
A crunch, like bone and stone and metal and so many awful things moving in directions they shouldn’t be.