The First Summer of Callie McGee by A.L. Tait was an apt read for me over the Christmas-New Year week. Filled with references to summer in Australia, beachside towns, and the tensions between local and tourist kids, this gentle coming-of-age story with a mystery twist, tells the tale of 12-year-old Callie McGee across one week of the summer holidays, in the transition time between primary and high school.
Callie and her family are staying at their regular beach shack, In the Rip, for the annual family and friends holiday. She’s an only child with an over-protective, worrying mum, and she’s longing to live a more exciting and daring life. She decides that this week will offer her the opportunity to try out a new persona – changing her name from Calliope-Jean, to Callie. She wonders if she changes her name, will she change on the inside too?
I grew up in a small country town surrounded by beaches and the annual migration of tourists to our town was something everyone talked about. I was one of the locals, but in this story, Callie is an outsider -both in Sawyer’s Point and in her own life. Callie’s mum lives with anxiety and this rubs off on Callie, as she tries to tries to please her mum and find her own way forward in her life. As I read, I was reminded of my many days as a teen spent at the beaches where I grew up, working out who I was and who I wanted to be.
A.L. perfectly captures the voice of child to teen, as Callie struggles with defining who she is, dealing with older friend Sasha’s risk taking behaviour, meeting a new addition to the usual group in Owen, and solving the mystery of who is robbing the beach shacks.
The water in a rip current is always calmer than the waves on either side. Once in it, you’re best just to go with the flow.’ It’s the last summer before Callie starts high school and she’s been dragged along to yet another ‘family friends’ holiday. Determined to change her nerdy reputation, Callie sets out to make waves but nothing is quite as she expects. Her usual ally, Sasha, has outgrown Callie; her nemesis, Mitch, has brought his cousin Owen along; and the boring south coast town of Sawyer’s Point has been rocked by a series of burglaries. Callie, Owen and Mitch decide to investigate the robberies, bringing them face to face with a local gang … and a possible ghost.
But when Sasha goes missing, Callie must draw on all her smarts to find her friend, and discovers that being Callie McGee has its benefits. A middle-grade mystery about growing up, figuring things out, and solving the puzzle of who you are.
Callie has missed out on getting into the selective high school, which was her mum’s dream for her. But she’s secretly happy about this, and planning to begin year 7 as a completely new person, not the smart and quiet girl she’s always been seen as in the past. But her parents and the other ‘Groans’ as she calls the adults, continue to see her as the same old Calliope-Jean, rather than as the brighter, better, Callie. They often embarass her and make her feel even more on the outer and uncomfortable with herself. Secretly, she’d prefer to go the whole way and become CJ – a much cooler and braver version of herself – but the older Sasha tells her that she’s definitely not a CJ and she settles for Callie.
As the parents are such good friends, it is expected that the kids will all get along too, but Callie is finding it harder to engage with Sasha, who is older, confident, pretty and into boys, and with Mitch, who is often mean to her. Arriving with Mitch, his cousin Owen is a welcome addition and Callie finds an ally in this equally clever boy, who has a passion for solving mysteries. As they get to know each other, they share their secrets and worries and there builds a sense of first love and a bonding between them that helps Callie to stand up for herself and to be brave when its needed.
Sasha is totally focused on local boy Ned, and begins to draw Callie into letting her use her mobile phone to add Apps to, (which Callie usually only uses for photos and phone calls), because her mum has taken hers away. She asks Callie to lie about her activities and to cover for her when she sneaks out to meet Ned. In the meantime, Callie and Owen, and the annoying Mitch, are sneaking out at night too, trying to catch the beach shack thieves. As they creep around Sawyer’s Point in the night, they discover all sorts of things about the town, the activities of the locals and each other. And eventually, when Sasha finds herself in danger, Callie will step up and save the day.
The transition to high school can be confusing and scary. It’s often like standing on a boat in the ocean, with no idea how to find your way to land. This book will connect with young readers around some of the issues involved at this time of their lives, as well as engaging them in the characters, their relationships and solving the mystery. There’s also the possibility of a ghost floating around the edges of the narrative, which added an exciting twist.
Callie’s experiences reminded me of my own desire as a young teen to shake the bookish clever girl identity and become someone much cooler, someone the local kids would want to hang around with. Of course, as an adult, I now long to be that girl once again and to stand proudly inside my own identity. This story also made me remember some of the moments when my parents and other adults embarrassed me and how I made my way through these difficult parts of shifting from child to teenager, which is testament to A.L’s skills in capturing the teenage voice.
This is a sweet and relatable story, with a lovely voice and one which will engage readers in walking alongside Callie as she finds her pathway to believing in, and liking herself, whether she’s Calliope-Jean, Callie, or CJ. Highly recommended for readers aged 10+ and there are teaching notes available here