Nightbird by Alice Hoffman
Pub. Date: March 10, 2015
Source: e-ARC via netgalley (Thank you, Wendy Lamb Books/Random House!!)
Summary: “Some things could only be found in Sidwell it seemed: pink apples, black owls, and my brother, James.”
Twelve-year-old Twig’s town in the Berkshires is said to hide a winged beast, the Monster of Sidwell, and the rumors draw as many tourists as the town’s famed pink apple orchards. Twig lives in the orchard with her mysterious brother James and her reclusive mother, a baker of irresistible apple pies. Because of a family secret, an ancient curse, Twig has had to isolate herself from other kids. Then a family with two girls, Julia and Agate, moves into the cottage next door. They are descendants of the witch who put the spell on Twig’s family. But Julia turns out to be Twig’s first true friend, and her ally in trying to undo the curse and smooth the path to true love for Agate and James.
Genre: Middle Grade, Magical Realism
Recommended for: fans of Hoffman’s adult novels, fans of quiet & charming novellas
Practical Magic. The Dovekeepers. Last year’s bestseller The Museum of Extraordinary Things. Alice Hoffman is a writer who has been at the top of her game for decades – where could she possibly go now? I had mistakenly assumed Nightbird was her first Middle Grade novel, but it seems she’s written quite a few Young Adult and children’s books (sorry, Ms. Hoffman!). Still, I’m always a little nervous when an author known for a certain genre ventures out and dabbles in others. For some, it works: Nora Roberts’ J. D. Robb novels are a huge hit. Jame Patterson has easily broken into the Young Adult and Middle Grade market. Branching out seems to be The Big Thing these days and authors like David Baldacci, John Grisham, Jodi Picoult, even Philippa Gregory are all clamoring to stake their claim with the target audience. Sure some hit it big, easily bouncing from age group to age group or from genre to genre. Others however…not so much.
So I was a little hesitant to pick up Nightbird, though it sounded lovely: a lonely 12-year-old, a town with a monster, family secrets. It had all the makings of a Leah book. The only question would be whether or not Alice Hoffman could authentically write a tween. Did she? ..well, yes and no.
For decades Twig’s family has lived in Sidwell, drawing in both tourists and locals with their famed pink apples. Despite having deep roots in town, Twig has essentially been cast as an outsider for Twig and her mother are hiding a secret. The Sidwell Monster the townsfolk talk about? He’s hiding in their house. The Sidwell Monster is Twig’s brother. In order to safely hide her brother away from prying eyes, Twig can’t have friends, though the new neighbors all but force their way past Twig’s shell. As she becomes closer to the girls, however, she comes to realize a terrible truth: her new friends are descendants of an evil witch who placed a curse on Twig’s family.
As the summer lengthens, Julia and Twig (with some help from Julia’s older sister Agate) team up to find a way to break the curse once and for all. You see, one night Agate was outside just as James was leaving. The moment she saw him she fell in love…and James had fallen equally hard. Unfortunately, the town can never know about James (would they come after him with pitchforks?) and his mother would never agree to a relationship with the witch’s descendant. The younger sisters uncover the spell that can undo everything that has happened and go on to spend an entire summer’s allowance on the materials they’ll need.
This little whisper of a novel is an easy one-sitting read – if that! My copy was barely over 100 pages long. That said, despite the novel’s length (or, rather, lack of), Hoffman expertly breathed life into these characters and gave each a lovely voice. I felt for Twig, 12-year-old and not allowed to have friends (her mother’s reasoning for this would be that they would want to come over or have her over their house…couldn’t she just say no? What was so bad about her going over to a friend’s?) Her brother James fared little better: the curse placed upon the males in the family has doomed each boy to be born with wings. They’re easily removed before the first birthday, though that leaves the child sickly and frail. Their mother refused to have the wings removed, so while James grew up strong and terribly smart, he also had to grow up a prisoner in his own home. Little does his mother know, at night he takes to the sky.
While this was very much a Middle Grade novel (the voices, the overly tidy ending), at times it felt very Adult. Much like Sharon Creech’s The Boy on the Porch, Nightbird felt like a Middle Grade novel written for Adults. A plot that was in no hurry to reach its destination with many scenes that simply don’t feel like they would appeal to children. I don’t consider this a bad thing at all, but perhaps Hoffman’s crossover isn’t going to happen with this book.