Swing Sideways

Swing SidewaysAfter a school year plagued by panic attacks and trouble eating, Annie Stockton is hoping for a good summer. Her therapist has recommended freedom from the schedules and spreadsheets that Annie’s mother is so good at, hoping to help Annie feel happier and less stifled. Annie loves her mom, but she is tired of feeling trapped every day. “I wanted room to breathe. I wanted to make my own decisions, pick my own passions, study when I chose, and not clean my room if I didn’t feel like it” (183). Annie wants a summer full of the kinds of adventures that she writes about, but she’s not sure where to start. That’s where California comes in.

Brave and free-spirited, California is visiting her grandfather’s farm for the summer, looking for a friend to help her on an important mission. From the moment they meet, Annie knows that California is the sort of friend that she’s always wanted. “Something about her reminded me of Dad’s favorite word – shenanigans – like maybe she was getting ready to stir some up” (5). California is more than just wild and fun, though. She tells Annie about her family, damaged beyond repair after her mother ran away one summer long ago. California is determined to fix things for her grandfather, who Annie learns has cancer. California believes that finding her mother’s old show ponies will bring her home, and Annie is eager to help. “The promise of adventure, of running through the woods and searching McMurtry’s farm for two mysterious ponies was exactly what I wanted for the summer” (50).

As the two unearth clues, they also encounter more problems. Annie’s mother struggles to give her the independence she needs and Annie fights to keep her time on the farm a secret. She wants her friendship with California to be something she’s discovered on her own, something that really matters. Over the course of the summer, Annie learns to be free, but the longer they go searching for the ponies, the more sure she is that California isn’t telling her everything. She’s helping Annie become the person she wants to be, someone who’s a “little wild and a lot brave” (29), but Annie knows that friendship goes both ways. She’s just as determined to find the missing ponies, but what if it isn’t enough? How can she help California’s family find happiness if she has her own family problems to deal with?

Swing Sideways is Nanci Turner Steveson’s debut novel, but her characters and themes are timeless. It’s not the first book to depict young friendship, and in fact it shares many similarities with Bridge to Terabithia, but it certainly stands on its own for the inspiration it provides. For example, the friendship between Annie and California is one built on trust and respect, something that young readers can look up to as they make their own bonds. Her novel also touches on the complicated relationships between mothers and daughters. Not every family is perfect, and Steveson’s acknowledgement of this offers the novel a sense of realism that could apply to any reader. While Swing Sideways is presented as a sweet summer tale of mystery and friendship, it’s also a heavy, poignant depiction of loss and how to cope with it. Swing Sideways teaches young readers about the strength that they can find in friendships and family, but more importantly, about the strength that they can find in themselves.

  • Posted by Abriana

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