The Summer of the Swans

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NEWBERY MEDAL WINNER – 1971

The Summer of the Swans

by Betsy Byars

Age: 10 +

Interests: adolescence, siblings, special needs children

Viking Penguin: 1970

142 pages

Sara has a special bond with her brother Charlie, who hasn’t spoken a word since he was seriously ill at the age of three. She rebels against her bossy, old-fashioned Aunty Willie, and resents her older sister and her absent father, but Charlie really needs her. When he wanders out of the house in the middle of a hot summer’s night and disappears, all of Sara’s other problems suddenly become insignificant. In the very long and anxious day that follows, Sara learns to loosen up and maybe even forgive those she’s been holding a grudge against.

A simple, almost mundane story but with subterranean depths. Sara has become hardened to the point of belligerence, a common feature of thirteen-year-oldhood. Everyone is judged, mostly in how they treat her brother Charlie, and those who come up short in her estimation are marked as ‘the enemy’. Unfortunately she has jumped to conclusions regarding Joe, whom she suspects of having stolen Charlie’s beloved watch. With Charlie missing, Sara is forced to recognize she needs the help of others to find him, most notably Joe’s help. And even when her father falls short yet again – not coming immediately when he hears Charlie is missing – Sara is not as angry as she used to be with him. In fact, she suddenly views everyone around her in a more forgiving fashion.

The narrative voice of Sara is a pretty familiar one, as novels about adolescence abound with this type of conflicted young character, but the chapters told from Charlie’s point of view provide a nice contrast. His view of the world is naturally more childlike and free of the dark clouds that obscure Sara’s view.

This is an easy read, about the events of one day, and ends on a high note – Charlie is found in the woods and returned home, and Sara accepts an invitation from Joe to go to a party. I was pleasantly surprised by this novel, as the title and cover of the edition I had suggested something far more saccharine.

I’ve ranked it for age ten and up, interest-wise, but the reading level is a little lower than that. It’s a short book and an easy read, but anyone with a special needs sibling will really connect with Sara and her problems.

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All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.