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Growing Up and Moving On

ONE USUALLY THINKS of summer reading as light and humorous, but the new YA novels by Meredith Miller and Katrina Leno, while filled with plenty of mystery and adventure, manage to reach a more thought-provoking — and sometimes darker — level. On the surface, they’re similar to many YA stories, reflecting common struggles of the modern teenager, yet they also address the important issue of personal strength in the face of sexual abuse.

At first glance, they seem quite different sorts of books. Leno’s Summer of Salt welcomes the reader into its world with a playful, sweet, sometimes awkward narrator, while both narrators in How We Learned to Lie tell their stories from a place of sadness and pain. While the former novel creates a world of magic and mystery, the latter is almost too gritty in its realism. Even the cultures the stories are set in differ vastly. How We Learned to Lie, set in 1979–’80, is filled with outdated ideas — often mentioning, for instance, the taboos on interracial marriage and homosexuality. By contrast, Summer of Salt is set in a socially liberal town in the present day; its protagonist is open about being a lesbian and is surrounded by supportive friends and family members.

But even with so many differences, there is much about the two books that allies them. Both novels focus on a pair of teenagers with a strong bond who find themselves being pulled apart. In Summer of Salt, these are twin sisters — Georgina and Mary Fernweh — getting ready for college, their first time away from home and from each other. How We Learned to Lie features two 15-year-old neighbors — Anthony (called Daisy) and his best friend, Joan — who lament the fact that they are growing apart and heading down different paths. These two sets of teens find themselves, for the first time, forced to confront loneliness and the demands of growing up.

In Summer of Salt, the Fernweh family runs the only hotel on their tiny island, but that’s not the only thing that sets them apart. All the women in the family, dating back many generations, have magical gifts — that is, with a few exceptions. Seventeen-year-old Georgina fears that she may be one of these exceptions. She admires her mother’s and sister’s unique and wonderful talents (Mary can float unaided through the air, while their mother is skilled at making sleep potions and healing elixirs), and she waits impatiently for her own, which should — if tradition holds — appear before her 18th birthday. The question of whether or not Georgina will gain her special powers provides a key source of drama and intrigue throughout the story, forming an important part of the two sisters’ ability to grow up and move on to something greater.

Yet, while the family may have magical skills, these women prove that their most important abilities are not necessarily supernatural. The main conflict begins with a missing bird: every summer, tourists come to greet the mystical creature, named Annabella, who has been migrating to the island for more than 100 years. The Fernweh women suspect that the bird is one of their magical ancestors. When Annabella doesn’t appear as expected, the town — and its visitors — panic. Locals know that if Annabella stops coming, so will the tourists, and the island might not be able to survive. Meanwhile, Georgina notices something strange going on with her sister, though without any special powers, she’s unsure if she will be able to help her.

Unlike Summer of Salt, How We Learned to Lie lacks a supernatural aspect, though special abilities are still a large part of the story. Daisy, a 15-year-old boy fascinated with electronics, teaches himself to tamper with phone lines; he explores their workings, careful not to let the police catch on to his antics. Through his phone tapping, he contacts a woman in Italy, making a new friend when he needs it most. Meanwhile, his best friend and neighbor, Joan, loves science, especially dissecting things. The pairs’ abilities come in handy when their lives become uprooted. Both characters relate their stories from a place of tragic knowledge, some time in the future, when their small town has become famous for a gruesome death. Because of this, their narratives are often gloomy, looking back on the year in which the story is set as a sad time, pointing out things they should have done differently.

How We Learned to Lie is reminiscent of Celeste Ng’s 2014 novel, Everything I Never Told You. In both stories, the reader is informed at the outset of a tragic death, the details of which are revealed slowly from different perspectives. Both novels dig deep into family drama, exploring relationships between parent and child, siblings, and married couples. How We Learned to Lie feels a little grittier: while Ng’s characters try hard to keep everything together, the characters in Miller’s story seem to dwell on their misery, feeling helpless and unsure of how to fix their situations. They lie to each other — and sometimes themselves — as they struggle to conceal and grapple with their sense of hopelessness.

When magical or special abilities show up in YA, the effect is often quite literal, even if the abilities are not always treated realistically. In a period of discovery and change, real-life teens may feel as if they have found their own special abilities. Books like Miller’s and Leno’s encourage the idea of exploring and embracing the resultant changes.

Both novels deal with some form of sexual abuse, and the challenge of confronting it. While the abuse may not be a large part of either story, still it plays an important role in the respective plots. In Summer of Salt, the abuse happens near the end, so it’s difficult to discuss without spoilers. The incident brings to light an important issue in an honest and approachable way that young readers will find easy to digest. Leno’s handling of this theme is reminiscent of Julia Walton’s 2017 novel, Words on Bathroom Walls, in which a male teenager relates his story through the letters he writes to his therapist. Summer of Salt accomplishes the same casual, conversational tone through Georgina’s narration: she speaks to the reader like a close personal friend. Walton’s novel discusses the challenges associated with mental illness, rather than sexual violence; yet both are important topics for teenage readers to confront, and it’s refreshing to see them handled in such an honest way.

While Summer of Salt approaches its difficult subject matter in an open and progressive manner, How We Learned to Lie feels somewhat less approachable. In the story, Joan is sexually harassed by a police officer — a horrible situation that leaves the reader feeling deeply uncomfortable. The story is set in the late 1970s, long before the #MeToo era, before women were widely encouraged to speak up about such crimes. Miller effectively captures the victim’s confusion and the limited range of options available to her. The average YA reader is likely to find Miller’s treatment of this incident highly discomfiting, albeit quite powerful. The theme of abuse is resolved in opposite ways in the two novels. In one, the perpetrator is justly punished, and the reader is left with a sense of relief; in the other, the predator is unpunished (and unidentified), while the victim is left with only the hope of moving on.

While these books are works of fiction, they can help many readers see their own realities more clearly. The problems Leno’s and Miller’s characters face are very relatable for modern teens, allowing readers to enter into worlds not their own — whether it be a magical island or a small town in the past. Both stories provide a space for learning, self-reflection, and imagination, helping readers better understand their own abilities and problems — and what can (and can’t) be done about them.

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Jilly Pretzel teaches writing at California School of the Arts San Gabriel Valley and lives in Irvine, California, with her husband.

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