Last week, I posted about my independent study project for my MFA in Children’s Lit, and this week, it’s time for me to post my first reader response. I began my reading list with Maureen Daly’s Seventeenth Summer, a book that was first released in 1942 and is still in print today.
I picked this title for a number of reasons; first, it was published fifteen years before the formation of YALSA, a date I’m using as my rough marker for the early years of Young Adult literature; second, the fact that it’s still in print (and has been heralded as a “book that spans the decades”) indicates that Daly tapped into something over sixty years ago that is still resonant with teen readers today; and, third, this book is an example of YA written by a younger adult: according to the biography in the back, Daly was a college student when she wrote this novel of first love. Now, there’s obviously no rule that says good literature must be written by a person who matches the plot of the book, but titles like this (and The Outsiders) present an interesting merging of art and life, when the author doesn’t have the distance of years between herself and her characters. I’m not sure how this influences the book, but I think it’s interesting, and was a point of note about this novel when I selected it.
The biggest thing that strikes me about this title is the sensuality of it. Although the story isn’t sexual (it’s almost deliciously unsatisfying how little kissing there actually is, let alone anything else, between the two young lovers), it’s ripe with sensual imagery. Daly uses sensory descriptions to create the heat, scents, and flavors of a languid summer love, and the heightened sensory descriptions almost take the place of the touching and making out that Angie and Jack might want to do, but resist mostly because Angie, the main character and narrator, is a quintessential “good girl”. She’s sweetly naive, although the author isn’t: Angie makes a number of innocent comments about parked cars and necking that are clearly tongue in cheek, but instead of preying on her innocence, her first love, Jack, treats her differently than the other girls he’s been with.
Although the book isn’t a tale of a first sexual relationship (I’ll be reading one of those later, when I get to Forever, an old favorite of mine), it’s still a romantic read. Encapsulated within the summer, both the story and the love affair are confined to an almost fantasy world: Angie knows she moving to college in the fall, and Jack will be staying behind, so from the start, even though they fantasize about the future, the reader and the characters have the very clear sense that whatever happens over the summer will be isolated and special, not something either character will stretch out into the future. It lends a bittersweet tone to the whole tale, but the sweet outweighed the bitter, for me at least.
What Makes it YA?
The first love is a common theme in both YA and NA literature, so what is it that makes this story strictly YA? I’d argue that although mature, Angie is still young (not only in her naivety, but in her actions and thoughts, as well). She hasn’t had a chance to wonder about who she’ll be as an adult, because her focus has solely been on who she is right now. She knows she’ll be headed off to college, but through the whole story, it seems kind of shimmery and vague, unlike the sensations she feels with Jack, which are rich, tangible, and dominate her thoughts. At the heart of this love story is a young girl who’s beginning to figure out what she thinks about the world, although she hasn’t had a chance to venture forth from home yet. Despite the age of the story and a few dated references, this still reads like a sweet contemporary romance, and although many teens have more “adult” experiences, there are many who don’t: that’s something that hasn’t changed in the years since this novel was published, and Seventeenth Summer is likely still in print because contemporary readers can still connect with Angie’s innocence, longing, and sense that even a beautiful thing will end.
What do you think? Have any of you read this novel, or might you pick it up now?