feathers by Jacqueline Woodson
Putnam Publishing Group (March 2007)
Children/juvenile books: ages 8-12
feathers was handed to me with little more to recommend it than “Have you heard of Jacqueline Woodson and feathers?”
“Newberry Honor’s list, right?” I recall.
Yes. And the next time I see Connie she lends me her copy, “You’ll like it.”
I can and will say more, but let me first say, “You’ll like it.”
At 118 pages feathers is a quick read that should be no less savored. The prose are liquid and smooth and when the book is finished you are surprised, woken from a lull–a contemplative lull, not a mindless lullaby–though all feels all right in Frannie’s world, contentment amidst the changes.
The author begins by evoking (and quoting) Emily Dickinson:
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune—without the words,
And never stops at all.
I know that that premise alone will not win everyone, but the contemplation of the first line of the poem by a 6th grade girl will. A young black girl living on one side of the tracks in the winter of 1971; eating “free-lunch” at school; who has experienced death and grieving in her small family (and concerned they may face more); has a deaf older sibling; and has the memory and social consciousness regarding racial oppression/segregation, black power movements, and Vietnam roiling in the background. Yeah, there is a lot there. Hope seems an appropriate overriding theme; however, the Hope found thematically is not viewed solely with regards to Frannie’s discontent, rather much belongs to those around her.
Hope is a present tense idea for Frannie. Unlike those around her, she does not lack an essential moment of discontentment. That is not to say that she is without concerns or worries. Her worries find resolution, as resolved as living life will allow. Her self-deprecating observations are charming, but they also reveal a youthful understanding of change, and an evolving awareness of self. She has a wonderful teacher, an incredible mother and father (loving and affectionate toward each other and their children), a brilliant older brother, a best friend, and a girl in her class that annoys her.
The first line of the book introduces an impetus for change in Frannie’s school room, and the story ripples outward. The conflict (which carries the story) moves us along through the images of Frannie’s world. She shares a loveliness amongst the grit, in any way beauty may be found in life’s realities and potential unfairness.
Woodson explores longing alongside contentment, memory, and anticipation. There is fear and questions of worth. Frannie’s family and her community are worthwhile. They are worth the while. There is an appreciation for the very human moments that everyone can relate to without being bogged down with anything other than joy; a joy that Woodson conjures into the complex weight of feathers.
There are so many conversations to be had; impressions to make and consider. Read it aloud, or just plain read, with someone. It is a thought provoking contemplation of “hope as a thing with wings,” one you may not read into the poem yet can remain undiminished by the story.
More than the contemplation of hope and belief (a subject with which best friend Samantha concerns herself), inside lies the older brother’s discussion of bridges, and the image of Trevor and others trying to fly over the fence off the swing, looking to someplace else, someplace with opportunity. Even so, Frannie does not concern herself so much with what is over there, but what is right here. Woodson tightens the scope to look at the individual and the community around them. Doing so, the book reinforces a love of community and pride in the culture. It reiterates the value in our shared humanness and the appreciation for the beautiful moments, both difficult and comforting that make up life–the very things that go into the creation of hope. Indeed, a love and appreciation for Frannie’s culture is perhaps an even greater them than the Hope you’ll read about in most reviews—perhaps it is embarrassingly apparent, and I am too much the novice.
I’ve yet to decipher the partitioning of the book into four sections, especially as the second is only two chapters (5-6) and 5 is only one page (three paragraphs). It may be attributed to the idea that the book is formatted and written within the influences of an epic poem.
Look up the late-1960s and early-70s if they are unfamiliar (or if you are as bad with dates as I am). Woodson provides cultural indicators but does not belabor the setting with anything more than she needs. She is precise, and dangerously close to delicate.
Woodson has a compassionate gaze, observing the landscapes and her characters with an abiding love for all she surveys. No thing and no one is left without context, without texture.
The book is marketed as early as age 8, introduce it at 8, and maybe again at 10, tuck it in with the poetry, and DiCamillo, and Pam Munoz Ryan, and Margarita Engle. I’m not sure if feathers will prove ageless or timeless; but it is worth a moment of your time whatever age you presently find yourself in.
(written June 2009)