feathers by Jacqueline Woodson, 118pp, RL 4
Jacqueline Woodson is a prolific and varied author with a Newbery Honor medal, a Caldecott Honor medal, a National Book Award Honor and Coretta Scott King Award and Honors for her books for children. After reading feathers I can seen why she has won so many awards. She has a way of creating a distinct sense of place and time that compliment her memorable characters. Set in the snowy winter of 1971, feathers is narrated by eleven year old Frannie who, although she thinks of herself as an average kind of girl, finds herself dealing with grown-up issues like death, prejudice, violence and the abstract concept of hope.
Emily Dickinson's famous couplet, "Hope is the thing with feathers/that perches in the soul," lends the book its title and provides an overriding theme throughout the events of the book. Like Polly Horvath, Woodson is a miniaturist, weaving tight, well crafted characters and ideas into less than 150 pages. Ms Johnson, Frannie's teacher and Frannie's mother are the two main adult characters in a story that is driven by the children. Besides Frannie, my favorite character is her older brother Sean, who was born deaf. When, at birth, doctors offer to try an experimental operation on Sean that might allow him to hear, his parents choose not to, believing that, "if that's the way he came into the world, that's the way he's staying. It's us we need to change." Dialogue in Woodson's book is indicated by italics and not the traditional punctuation, perhaps as a way to represent the sign language communications that go on in the book. It also adds to the feel of the book. Often, we are inside Frannie's head, listening to her thoughts and following as she makes connections and has realizations about the things in her world.
At school and at home, Frannie has some serious issues to face. Her mother, who has had several miscarriages and an baby who died at one month old, becomes pregnant. Frannie and Sean are concerned for her health and happiness above all else. Their father discusses this with them and the possibility that she might lose this baby just like the others. He tells the children that a baby is a happy thing and that they should be happy about this new baby growing, wether it's for two weeks, two moths or forever. Woodson takes this thread from Frannie's home life and interweaves it with her friendship with her best friend and preacher's daughter, Samantha. Frannie holds Samantha in high esteem, admiring in her the things that she is not - dainty, careful about her appearance, church going and religious. This does not come between the girls, but brings them together. When Samantha calls and asks Frannie to go to church with her one Sunday morning, Frannie is leaning toward staying home to watch "Casper the Ghost." Samantha tries to convince Frannie that she needs to go to church so she can be saved and not "worry after you die." Looking at a photo of her dead baby sister as she talks on the phone, Frannie realizes that she doesn't worry about dying because it has always "been somewhere in our house, somewhere so so close, we could feel the wind of it on our cheeks." She isn't afraid of having to move on the way Samantha is because she has moved on. This moment of understanding allows her the empathy to see the world through Samantha's eyes and she agrees to go with her.
The main event of the book, the one that kicks off the story, is the arrival of a new student in Ms Johnson's class in the middle of the year. Despite the fact that Frannie herself was once a new student in the middle of the year and knows how awkward it is, she keeps her distance. Almost instantly, the new student is named "Jesus Boy," by Trevor, the bully of the class, because he has light skin, long curly hair and refuses to talk. This, and the fact that he lived on the other side, the white side, of the highway, give him an air of mystery, one that starts Samantha thinking that he might really be Jesus. The teasing and tension between the new student and Trevor and his group escalate along with his strangeness when he tries speaking to Frannie in sing language. She is put off at first and will only speak to him audibly, but her feelings gradually change and allow her to come to his side when a playground fight threatens.
I could write so much more about the issues and ideas that Woodson brings up in her masterfully written book, but, like all great books, it is best discovered and savored on one's own and shared around later. This is the perfect book for parents to read along with their children and discuss. The age, gender, race, religion or non-religion of the reader doesn't matter, despite that of the characters. What matters, above all else, is the idea of hope and how it fits into our lives, how we let it fit into our lives.
This is the first book I have read by Jacqueline Woodson, and it will not be the last. feathers is the perfect book to start off with if you are new to her books and not to be missed if you are already a fan.