Something about summer amplifies all the memorable bits of adolescence. First love, first kisses, becoming independent, realizing your parents are (gasp!) people, uncovering family secrets, unexpected deaths. . .according to middle grade fiction, all of this tends to take place over the course of a summer. Perhaps its all the free time away from school and adult supervision that allows this age to blossom, at least in books. Can anyone name a single book in which a main character comes of age in the winter? What books do 10 year olds in Russia turn to for this stuff?
Margaret has loved her neighbour Sherman for as long as she can remember. Now it seems that Sherman returns her affections, though he demonstrates it in a number of extremely confusing ways, including naming his pet squirrel ‘Little Margaret’ in her honour and playing dead in the park in the middle of the night to get her attention. Margaret isn’t sure how to respond to these potential advances, but her strict and disapproving mother and devilish 3 year old twin-sisters seem to be there at every turn to thwart her budding romance.
This is perfect middle grade, with all my favourite summer reading elements: lovable, rowdy ensemble cast; hot, small-town summer days; first love; charming first person narrator; fresh and beautiful language. It is earnest without being insincere, authentic without being gritty, and lovely without being cloying. Here is just a taste of Margaret’s narrative in all her funny, prickly glory:
On first seeing Sherman’s pet baby squirrel, Little Margaret: “The squirrel was cute, in the same creepy way that a dressed-up mouse in a book can be cute.”
On her mother’s good moods: “When she was kind, I was almost more nervous than when she tried to see into my devious self. I decided to reward her by being a better person someday.”
On being her grown-up neighbour’s partner in a three-legged race: “Below Mr. Jenson’s Bermuda shorts, his leg hair felt creepy. I seriously questioned my decision to distance my leg from Sherman’s.”
The supporting cast here is superb and author Jane St. Anthony does a fantastic job creating familial tension, especially between Margaret and her mother. Some of the jabs Margaret takes at her mother, deliberate and meant to “bruise” her, are mean-spirited but also 100% believable. Of course a smart 12 year old will lash out at her mother for not being cool or lenient enough. The truth is, Margaret’s mother is tired, frustrated, and trying her best with four kids, including the twins and prickly Margaret.
Sherman, the object of Margaret’s fickle affection, is a fantastic character sketch of a 12 year old boy. He is the kind of kid who lives for pranks, including one that puts Margaret’s life in danger, but also the kind of kid who sends a rose with a (misspelled) card. Grace, a brainy, self-possessed girl who “knows how to talk to adults” is the perfect friend for Margaret, quick to point out Vermin’s (aka Sherman) flaws but also understands and doesn’t belittle Margaret’s affection*.
The Summer Sherman Loved Me has earned a place in my All Time Favourite Summer Books, alongside Olive’s Ocean, All Alone in the Universe, Tuck Everlasting and Looking at the Moon. This book is not be missed by any reader, 8-98, who is looking for a breezy but memorable coming of age story that takes place in that most coming of age season, summer.
The Summer Sherman Loved Me is available now from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
*Grace returns in her own story, a companion book entitled Grace Above All, which I have already put on hold at the library. I shall miss Margaret’s voice, but cannot wait to hear feisty Grace take centre stage.