Review: The Summer I Became a Nerd by Leah Rae Miller
I had no idea that a book in which LARPing receives so much page time could be so endearing and fun.
Leah Rae Miller's debut novel, The Summer I Became a Nerd is lighter fair done right. While it's not breaking any ground, there's a lot of merit in reading a breezy book that's so engaging. I often find myself disinterested or just plain bored with this type of novel, particularly in YA, but this hits a lot of sweet spots with fun humor, a believable teen voice and a warm story about the importants of being true to oneself.
Following a traumatic experience as a middle schooler, Maddie has hidden her love of comic books, science fiction and all things "nerdy" from her friends in pursuit of popularity and fitting in. She's a cheerleader, she dates the quarterback, she listens to the "right" music that her popular group of friends listens to.
This carefully-constructed facade starts to crumble when the final issue of her favorite comic book is on backorder and she forces herself to go to the local comic book store (in "disguise," naturally) in search of the book.
There’s only one place in town that would have a copy. Is the risk of being seen and losing my place atop Natchitoches Central’s elite worth it? No. Absolutely not. It’s been a long, hard climb to the top of the popularity ladder. It took a lot of deceit and subterfuge to get people to forget The Costume Incident.
It turns out the comic book store is owned by the family of a nerdy boy from Maddie's school, Logan, who isn't fooled by her disguise or her feigned coolness. Quickly, the two begin spending time together, as Logan introduces Maddie to his world full of LARPing, video games and comic book conventions.
On the drive to his house, the thought hits me I’m about to do one of the nerdiest things anyone can do. Dressing up as an elf princess so I can go frolic with other people pretending to be fantastical beasts? It’s crazy, right?
Maddie's growing closeness with Logan is charmingly developed.
She not only falls for Logan, but also finds "her people" among his friends and even Logan's parents. That is why this sweet romance worked for me, that their connection is forged through mutual interests and spending time together. The pair have a believable, fun dynamic too, such as during this exchange after one of Logan's friends--Dan, who's a funny and completely realistic secondary character--calls into the college radio station where Logan hosts a show.
I lean in. “Um, thanks.”
“You’re welcome. Peace out, bitches!”
Logan just shakes his head. “Thanks for that, Dan-the-man. Listeners, do you agree with what he said? Give us a call and let’s discuss. Now back to the music.”
He turns the mic off again. “So, what are you doing this Saturday?”
I know I must look like a goof, but I can’t hold back my huge smile. “I don’t have any plans.”
“Do you want to hang out?”
Now, Maddie has a boyfriend at the beginning of The Summer I Became a Nerd and this book does what I rarely see in YA novels, which is that the author allows the other boy to be a decent dude, their relationship was simply not one meant for the long term. So often the current boyfriend has be turn into a bad guy, with a huge flaw in order to give the female main character "permission" to get involved with the new boy. And--try not to pass out over this development--Maddie actually talks to her mom about this situation. Yes, we have present parents in The Summer I Became a Nerd.
I start to tell her I’m sure, that nothing happened, but she knows me better than anyone. “Something happened. You want to talk about it?”
Yes! I would love to talk about it. I can feel the words bubbling up. It’s crazy how Mom has a way of pulling things out of me, but I can’t admit I lied to her about where I was going tonight. So, I try to tell her only the parts she needs to know. “There’s this guy,” I say.
“Ah, I think I know where this is going.” She sits up and settles in to listen.
“I mean, I know I’m with Eric right now, and he’s awesome. Well, kind of. In a superficial sort of way.” I frown. Wow. How do you really feel, Maddie? “Anyway, I feel bad because I really like this other guy. He’s funny, and we have a lot in common and—”
“Like what?” Think fast. Do not confess how much or Mom will be all over you. “Uh, like, we’re both going to be in honors classes next year.”
“A smart guy. I like it.”
As Maddie starts to become more and more entrenched with Logan and his world, she has to lie more and more to maintain her image to her friends, lies that are pretty difficult to maintain.
It's with the friendship angle where The Summer I Became a Nerd faltered a bit.
I would have liked the friendships to be further explored with more depth. I didn't completely believe in the positive resolution to the friend-related conflicts and I was bothered by the flat characterization of the "mean girl" character. I think there's a place for that sort of character, particularly in YA, because that's a reality a lot of teens deal with in their social circles. However, this one is pretty much unnecessary and exists solely to create conflict. The climax, too, is fairly predictable, but it's good-hearted and quite fun, and nerdy types will enjoy the various references and homages peppered throughout The Summer I Became a Nerd.
If you prefer your YA to be more "mature" and less teenage, then you'll probably not like The Summer I Became a Nerd. However, I'd give this to teens (and middle-schoolers) in a heartbeat as the problems are ones that many young people will find quite relatable. Issues like fitting in and dating someone you like well enough out of social obligation are things that pervade many people's teen years, and books like this fill an important role in exploring those topics.
An aside: I continue to be impressed with Entangled Teen's offerings, which really are geared toward a solidly teen audience, as opposed to chasing the crossover market. That's not to say that adults won't enjoy their novels, but there's little ambiguity about who Entangled Teen is targeting with their acquisitions, and I think that's pretty great.
Disclosure: Review copy provided by the publisher.