by Jacqueline Woodson
G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2007
This is a beautiful, simple, complex, shining little book. It's a book that I'm sure would mean different things to me at different ages -- it's got so many layers, some of which I haven't sorted yet. When I suggested we read it for the parent-child book club, I'd only read pieces and several reviews. I'm a little scared now, because it is a very complex book, and the main character is older by years than the kids in the group -- I have some as young as six -- but I'm also really happy, because I think the adults are going to get a lot out of this, and at the same time there is plenty of fodder there for the kids to think about. And lots of fodder for discussion both between kid and parent and between our group.
The story is a relatively simple thing: Frannie is eleven years old and in school at Price Elementary in New York. It's the seventies, and the schools are still segregated, if informally -- Frannie and her family are black, and they live on one side of the highway. All the white people live on the other side and go to school there. But one day a white boy walks into Frannie's class, and that's the beginning of a really gorgeous story about family, friendship, fitting in, bullying, memory, and hope.
Woodson has language wrapped around her little finger. I believe the woman could do whatever she wanted with it and I would follow happily. More than that, she has that feeling of what it's like to be a child dealing with big questions and difficult situations down. Frannie is often confused, worried, sad, and frustrated, but she's also happy, hopeful, and funny. She's self-involved, but she's starting to look at the world around her with more awareness, beginning to empathize with other kids, and trying to do the right thing.
Add another layer, now: Frannie's older brother Sean is deaf. The relationship between the two kids is beautiful, too. Frannie has the mixture of overprotectiveness and awe for Sean that one might expect to find in a younger sibling who can hear. Sean puts up with her, but more than that, obviously loves her deeply too. They play games, talk, help each other, and occasionally get on each other's nerves. Further, they support each other through a difficult family time: their father is a long-haul trucker (though this is never explicit -- one of the things I like about this book is that Woodson lets the reader figure things out for themselves) and so not often home, and their mother is pregnant again, after several high-risk and ultimately miscarried pregnancies, including an infant that died between Sean and Frannie. The two kids have different perspectives on this, but stick together through it. Aside from their relationship, the little glimpse into the world of a congenitally deaf teenager adds something special to this already special book.
I could keep going, keep digging deeper. The bullying storyline is pretty straightforward, and I think will probably form a core for our discussion of this book next month. Then there's the relationship between Frannie and her best friend Samantha. Sam is extremely religious, the daughter of an evangelical pastor. Frannie's not so much.
This was another aspect I worried about a bit, as we are a public library and I have no idea at all about the religious proclivities of our book club members. I knew that there were Christianity-based religious discussions in it ahead of time, but I decided to go ahead with it anyways for two reasons: one, the kids in the group will already be having the kinds of conversations with others about religion that Frannie is having with Sam; and two, this aspect of the book deals with respect for others' beliefs, not with conversions or Jesus-pushing. This is not a preachy book, and if you're the sort of person (like me) who shies away hard from inspirational or Christian fiction, have no fear. I suspect, frankly, that it's the sort of book that will let people take from it what they will.
I may try to find a good book about a Muslim or Jewish family just for kicks. My feeling from this book club is that they'd totally be in to that. Anyone have any suggestions? Something under 100 pages is best, and though this book had an older protagonist I usually try to keep the protagonists in the 7 - 10 year old range.
The main driver for my choice of this book was that I wanted, for February, a book dealing with black history that wasn't about slavery, the Underground Railroad, or segregation. Those are all topics that the kids will get in school, and it was important to me that they get another dimension of black culture in history, that they know that there's a heck of a lot more to black history than that. There aren't a lot of books for this age group depicting black families or black culture in a way that doesn't explicitly deal with slavery or immediate post-slavery. Feathers was perfect in that respect.
Seriously, this is a kids' book that should be read by everyone, not just kids. I got an incredible amount out of this book, and I don't think I can stress how absolutely perfect, how beautiful this story is. I think that if you have children in your life between the ages of eight and twelve, you should get them this book, and read it with them. If you don't have children in your life, read it anyways. It's a hopeful, multifaceted, gorgeous book, written in such a shining way.