Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Nightbird by Alice Hoffman

Source of book: Audiobook from the library

I can’t even remember how this book ended up on our list. I am guessing it was off an article on recent children’s books back in 2015, because it isn’t on our Newbery list. However, on the list it was, and it worked for our traveling audiobook series. 

The basic setup of the book is a Magic Realism sort of plot. Young “Twig” Fowler lives with her mother in the small town of Sidwell, Massachusetts. Okay, not just with her mother. Her older brother James lives with them, but nobody knows he exists. Back 200 years ago, a failed romance between one of their ancestors and a young witch named Agnes Early led to a curse put on the Fowler men: they all grow wings.

Then, the descendants of Agnes Early’s family move back to her old cottage, and Twig becomes friends with Julia. When Julia’s older sister, Agate, discovers and falls in love with James, they all decide to try to figure out how to break the curse. Oh, and there is also a forest that is habitat for endangered owls and a subplot around the attempts to develop the woods. And a bit about Johnny Appleseed.

I would characterize Nightbird as decent, but not spectacular. The plot isn’t the most compelling, and there are some holes in the resolution of various issues. The best part by far, however, was the portrayal of the friendship between Twig and Julia. Twig has been isolated for years because of the secret, and she finds herself both desperate for a friend and yet terrified of actually becoming vulnerable. Fortunately, Julia is persistent and doesn’t play catty games.

The other friendships are intriguing. There is a longstanding relationship between Twig’s aunt, the town historian, and an ornithologist. Are they just friends? Maybe a bit more? The romance between Agate and James, although only a small part of the story - we never really see it from their perspective - is also fairly believable. Finally, the friendship that develops between Colin and Twig seems promising. Alas, the book is too short to really flesh that one out, and one is left wondering how the book would have gone if less time had been spent on the curse and the mystery of its origin, and more on just the friendships.

I’m not really sold on the audiobook version, narrated by Jenna Lamia. I realize the main character is fairly young, but I guess I am used to voices with a little more heft in my 12 year olds. (My wife and daughters have always had deeper - and more assertive - voices.) Not a bad job, just not my favorite.

This book was pleasant, and had its moments, so I would say it is a worthy addition to a reading list. However, reading it back to back with Richard Peck, it seemed a little less so by comparison.  

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