Trendwatch: Tweet Tweet. Year of the Bird.
I don’t do all that many trendwatch posts on this site, if only because it’s impossible to keep track of them all. One minute you’re seeing tons of picture books involving whales. Another minute you’re noticing more than one book about encouraging your pet to become atheist (see this and this). If you do notice such things you are inclined to put your discovery into some sort of context. What do atheist children’s books say about the state of the world today? How do we equate whales with ourselves? That sort of thing.
One particularly odd little trend of middle grade fiction this year (which is to say, books for children between the ages of 9-12) involves our fine feathered friends. I’m not talking about nonfiction like Feathers: Not Just for Flying or Have You Heard the Nesting Bird. Nor am I referring to picture books like Flight School or I Hatched. Nope. Middle grade. And I’m a bit baffled by what I find.
First off, it was early in the year when I noticed two books with those coincidental similarities you sometimes find in our field. Every year there will be some titles that resemble one another by complete coincidence. At the beginning of this year they were Nightingale’s Nest by Nikki Loftin and Bird by Crystal Chan. The similarities weren’t overly obvious but they were there. They both slot into that “A stranger comes to town” plotline. Here’s a plot summary for Loftin’s book:
It doesn’t seem right that a twelve-year-old boy would carry around a guilt as deep and profound as Little John’s. But when you feel personally responsible for the death of your little sister, it’s hard to let go of those feelings. It doesn’t help matters any that John has to spend the summer helping his dad clear brush for the richest man in town, a guy so extravagant, the local residents just call him The Emperor. It’s on one of these jobs that John comes to meet and get to know The Emperor’s next door neighbor, Gayle. About the age of his own sister when she died, Gayle’s a foster kid who prefers sitting in trees in her own self-made nest to any other activity. But as the two become close friends, John notices odd things about the girl. When she sings it’s like nothing you’ve ever heard before, and she even appears to possibly have the ability to heal people with her voice. It doesn’t take long before The Emperor becomes aware of the treasure in his midst. He wants Gayle’s one of a kind voice, and he’ll do anything to have it. The question is, what does John think is more important: His family’s livelihood or the full-throated song of one little girl?
And here’s the publisher plot summary for Chan’s:
Jewel never knew her brother Bird, but all her life she has lived in his shadow. Her parents blame Grandpa for the tragedy of their family’s past; they say that Grandpa attracted a malevolent spirit—a duppy—into their home. Grandpa hasn’t spoken a word since. Now Jewel is twelve, and she lives in a house full of secrets and impenetrable silence. Jewel is sure that no one will ever love her like they loved Bird, until the night that she meets a mysterious boy in a tree. Grandpa is convinced that the boy is a duppy, but Jewel knows that he is something more. And that maybe—just maybe—the time has come to break through the stagnant silence of the past.
Both stories involve a dead sibling and a family’s ability (or inability) to cope after the fact. Bird wasn’t quite as reliant as magical realism as far as I could tell, but there was a distinct mystery about it. And, of course, the idea of children as birds, for good or for ill.
Later in the year more bird books started cropping up. When Beyond the Laughing Sky by Michelle Cuevas appeared it has some striking similarities to Nightingale’s Nest as well. The plot summary reads:
Ten-year-old Nashville doesn’t feel like he belongs with his family, in his town, or even in this world. He was hatched from an egg his father found on the sidewalk and has grown into something not quite boy and not quite bird. Despite the support of his loving parents and his adoring sister, Junebug, Nashville wishes more than anything that he could join his fellow birds up in the sky. After all, what’s the point of being part bird if you can’t even touch the clouds?
Far more of a magical realism title, the book takes the idea of a bird-child to the next level. This one has actually hatched from an egg and has a beak.
And none of this even counts books like Nest by Esther Ehrlich which involves birdwatching in some capacity. It’s a very different kind of title, but it fits with this overall theme.
I suppose that in the end birds are perfect little metaphor receptacles. Whatever the case, they yield some pretty darn interesting books.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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