Feathers, by Jacqueline Woodson
January, 1971. Sixth-grader Frannie isn't entirely sure what she's supposed to get out of the Emily Dickinson poem that her teacher has assigned:
Hope is the thing with feathers
that perches in the soul,
And sings the tune—without the words,
And never stops at all
She doesn't know what to make of the new boy in her classroom, a boy who looks White but says that he isn't; she's confused about how she and her friend Samantha are starting to see the world more and more differently. She's worried that her mother's recent fatigue is a precursor to falling back into grief and depression; she's angry when she sees the way other people react when they realize that her older brother is deaf.
Everywhere she looks, people are separated from each other by one thing or another: physically, like the highway that divides her Black neighborhood from the White one across the way; through ideas, like her new distance from Samantha; through language, like her brother and the girls who clearly find him attractive but balk at the idea of learning to sign; and through visible differences, like the new boy in her class. She's got a lot of questions and very few answers—but she's going to watch and listen and think and mull until she's further along the path of figuring it all out.
Feathers is 118 pages long, and it deals with SO much. The Black Power movement is ongoing, as is the Vietnam War. While both things are touched on, neither is a focus—but as background set-pieces, they work together to represent a larger version of the various characters' more personal hopes and fears. It deals very much with friendship dynamics—with growing apart, and with asserting one's own independence in terms of opinion and interests and thoughts. In some cases, it shows people being able to accept those changes in one another and grow back together again.
It deals with questions of identity and belonging:
"Anyway, it's strange—you don't see white boys at this school. Much as I hate to say it, Trevor's right—that boy belongs across the highway with the other white people."
"It's the nineteen seventies," I said. "Not the fifties. There's no more segregation, remember?"
"Try telling that to the people on the other side of the highway," Maribel said. "Or the people on this side. It's strange. Strange that he's coming to this side where he doesn't belong."
It was strange, but I wan't going to agree with Maribel about it. (10-11)
And I think it might be the first children's book I've ever read that deals frankly with miscarriage, with the emotional pain it can bring, not just to a mother, but to the entire family:
"You worrying, aren't you?"
"Aren't you?" I looked up at him. His eyes were red and puffy and he hadn't shaved. "Those other babies . . . ," I said slowly. "They . . . they died. Mama grew them for a while and then they were all gone again."
Daddy pulled me closer to him. "Here's the deal," he said. The elevator door opened and we walked out into the lobby past the weekend doorman. The lobby had mirrors and pretty tile floors and a fake fireplace with an electric log in it.
"You don't need to worry about what happened before. All you need to look at is what's happening now." He nudged my chin up so I would look at him. "And be happy about it. And if it means you only get to be happy for a month or two months or three months, so what. A month or two months or three months is a good long time."
I kept looking up at him. My head felt like it was all swirly inside. Felt like if somebody lifted the ground out from beneath me, I'd just float off somewhere. I shivered, took my hand out of Daddy's and shoved it in my pocket. (58-59)
It's beautifully written—my notes are basically just two pages of starred numbers, which, in my shorthand, means that there's something I might want to share on that page. For instance, this moment, after an emotional moment in Frannie's classroom:
Usually, when Ms. Johnson left the room, we lost our minds with talking and jumping around and throwing things at each other. Rayray always acted the craziest. He could do standing backflips and usually did them in the aisle. But that day, he just sat quietly in his seat, rolling his pencil slowly back and forth across his desk. That day, the room was completely quiet. It was like we were all glued to our seats. It was like somebody had come into the room and gently lifted our tongues right on out of our mouths. (27-28)
There's a whole lot of imagery about lifting up, floating away, being unmoored—the excerpts above are just two instances. There are also a lot of descriptions of physical isolation, like the moment above when Frannie takes her hand out of her father's and puts it in her pocket, but there are also a lot of moments when people come together, rejoin hands, bump shoulders.
It's about different forms of faith, about right vs. wrong and about doing the right thing because it's right in your heart and in your gut, not because someone told you to or because certain people are watching or because you want something specific in the long run. It touches on economic class; about children taking on the attitudes and prejudices of their parents; it deals with bullying, both in terms of the reasons people are bullies and the effects that bullying has on the victims.
Again, Feathers is only 118 pages long. It's quiet and lovely and pretty much a marvel. If you haven't read it, do.
Next up, maybe:
I'm thinking I might stick with stories set in the seventies via Songs of Faith, by Angela Johnson, or Secret Holes, by Pansie Hart Flood. Or! I might head off into the '70s via the adult shelves, with Jacqueline Woodson's upcoming Another Brooklyn, or through Veronica Chambers' When Did You Stop Loving Me?
Lists & so on:
Book List: ALA Notables, 2008 Older Readers
Book List: IRA/CBC Children’s Choices, 2008 Advanced Readers
Book List: NCTE Notables: 2008 Historical and Realistic Fiction
Book List: Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People, 2008 Social Interactions
Starred Review: Publishers Weekly
Starred Review: School Library Journal