Nightbird by Alice Hoffman
Genre: Middle grade fantasy
Publisher: Wendy Lamb Books/Random House Kids
Release date: March 10 2015
Source: eARC via NetGalley/Physical ARC
The nitty-gritty: A sweet and magical story, perfect for readers ten and up.
When you set out to find the answers to your questions, you have to be prepared to be surprised by what you discover.
I’ve had the pleasure of reading several of Hoffman’s young adult stories—including Aquamarine, Green Angel and Indigo—and so I was curious to read her latest, which is being marketed to a slightly younger crowd, but still maintains Hoffman’s trademark magic realism. Her adult books often deal with gritty themes like abuse and death, and even her YA stories contain subjects that can be tricky for young people, like the death of a parent. But this time around, Hoffman has left out the heavy storylines and focused on something that may be closer to a ten-to-twelve year old’s experience: trying to make friends when you feel as if your life is completely abnormal.
Twig Fowler lives in an old farmhouse in Sidwell, MA with her older brother James and her mother, where they keep to themselves and tend to their large apple orchard. Ever since Twig’s mother brought them here from New York, she’s discouraged Twig from making friends or letting people into their lives. Twig’s brother, you see, is…different. He was born with wings, and he’s resigned himself to a life locked away in his house in order to keep their family secret safe.
Until the day new neighbors move in next door. Sixteen-year-old Agate and twelve-year-old Julia are everything Twig’s mom doesn’t like, but Twig is determined to make a new friend, and she and Julia click immediately. And as for James, once he gets a glimpse of the lovely Agate, he realizes how unhappy his life has been, and he begins to sneak out at night to meet with her. Meanwhile, a mysterious winged “monster” has been spotted in the woods, and random items in town start to go missing. Cryptic spray-painted messages begin to appear around town, along with a drawing of a blue monster.
Twig and Julia discover a centuries-old spell that was cast on the men in Twig’s family—hence, James’ wings—and together they decide to find a way to break the spell for good. It’s a magical summer indeed as the girls gather ingredients to break the spell and solve the mystery of the monster in the woods.
No one brings magic to life like Alice Hoffman. Reading this book took me back to my own childhood, when I actually believed in magic, and even though I’m way beyond the age group this book is written for, I got chills—the good kind!—while reading this story. Hoffman is a genius at using symbolism and recurring themes that tie everything together. And yes, she does tend to use the same imagery over and over in her books, but having read a great many of them over the years, I have come to find this comforting. In Nightbird, Hoffman uses bees, flowers, herbs, apples, feathers, and owls over and over again to cast a spell over the reader. If you’ve read Alice Hoffman before, you know exactly what I’m talking about. (And if you haven’t, you really should:-D)
Twig’s mom bakes pies and sells them in town, her own secret recipe using a very special apple called the Pink that grows in the orchard behind their house. Like many of Hoffman’s story elements, these pies are transforming and practically magic themselves, so delicious are they. I also loved the saw-whet owls that live in the woods, owls that James sometimes rescues and nurses back to health. When James goes flying at night, the owls he’s made friends with fly with him. Such a lovely and simple story element, but one that feels magical like everything else about this book.
Because this is for younger readers, Twig, James, Julia and Agate steal the show. Hoffman avoids turning adults into bad guys in this story, which I was grateful for. Several of the adult characters turned out to be favorites of mine, including Twig’s mother, a flawed woman with a terrible secret (her son James, who can never be seen in public); and Mr. Rose, the mysterious journalist who comes to town and helps Twig solve her mysteries.
I would have to call this a “kinder, gentler” Alice Hoffman story, which is perfect for ages ten and up. Nothing really terrible happens in the book, although there are plenty of mysteries to solve and a few tense moments that will have pre-teens on the edge of their seats. But as an adult reader, I clearly saw everything that was coming. Nothing surprised me about the plot, and I easily predicted every twist and turn.
But Nightbird is a simply delightful tale, full of Hoffman’s special brand of luminous and magical writing. Young readers will identify with Twig’s and James’ loneliness and their desire to make friends and be part of the world. I have not seen the finished hardcover version of this book, but I suspect it will be a lovely gem, with color illustrations and even colored ink, if the ARC is anything to go by. As with everything I’ve read by Alice Hoffman, Nightbird is highly recommended.
Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy!
Final Rating: 9/10
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