Woodson, Jacqueline. Feathers. G.P. Putnam’s Sons: New York, 2007. ISBN 9780399239892
Set in the 70s, this story is about a young black girl and her journey through a new year. Her mother is pregnant, a new boy moves into class, and the winter provides to be her most confusing, yet enlightening winter. She starts to see skin color, age, and deafness in a new light.
I thought this was a very thought provoking book. While it’s not splendidly written (with several tense changes and simple sentences that seem patronizing as examples), it does make the reader think and brings the reader into the life of this young girl.
Frannie reads a poem by Emily Dickinson. The lines resonate with her so much that she constantly thinks about it and the meaning and applying it to her life.
“Hope is the thing with feathers…” -Emily Dickinson
Such is the power of poetry.
And as all young teens do, she spends a lot of time thinking about her life. Her brother, Sean, is deaf. They get along really well and spend a lot of time talking and messing around. You can see in the writing how much they love each other.
Her mother, who is older, is pregnant.
And to top it all off, a new white boy, “Jesus Boy” has moved in from the “other side of the highway” and is in her class at their African American school.
Trevor turned to the boy and whispered, “Don’t no pale-faces go to this school. You need to get your white butt back across the highway.” (pg. 4)
The town they live in is segregated. One side of the highway is for white people, the other for African Americans. In the book, the characters seem to be okay with this. Only Frannie’s brother, Sean, mentions wanting to cross to the other side.
“Why would we want to cross the highway, anyway? I asked Sean. What would we want to see?” (pg. 16)
A shocking feature of this book is the racism towards “Jesus Boy.” He’s pale skinned and from “the other side” so he’s a target for bullying immediately. The bullying doesn’t get better when they find out that he’s actually mixed. In fact, it isn’t until “Jesus Boy” knocks the biggest bully down that the bullying dies down. After that, others start to leave him alone. Our main character, Frannie, seems confused as to how he’s not black when his dad is, and why that merits continuing bullying. Others seem content to still call him “white.”
Another cultural marker in this book is the dialogue between Sean and his family. All the dialogue is in italics rather than quotations to indicate sign language use.
Because the town is mostly African American, the writer does bring in AAVE. (African American Vernacular English) which gives the novel a more authentic feel. When writing dialogue, it’s important to consider language and how it’s used.
“Say brother,” the kids said, which was jive talk for I agree with you.” (pg. 25)
“‘Right on, I heard somebody else say. ‘It be’s like that.'” (pg. 27)
We see her feelings about all that is going on in her life, and her confusion in trying to figure it all out. The book deals with racism, religion, relationships, and so much more.
“Each moment, I am thinking, is a thing with feathers.” (pg. 118)
A beautiful coming of age story that will resonate with readers and leave you hopeful about the future.
From Publishers Weekly:
“Looking forward” is the message that runs through Woodson’s (The House You Pass on the Way) novel. Narrator Frannie is fascinated with Emily Dickinson’s poem, “Hope is the thing with feathers/ that perches in the soul,” and grapples with its meaning, especially after a white student joins Frannie’s all-black sixth-grade classroom. Trevor, the classroom bully, promptly nicknames him “Jesus Boy,” because he is “pale and his hair [is] long.” Frannie’s best friend, Samantha, a preacher’s daughter, starts to believe that the new boy truly could be Jesus (“If there was a world for Jesus to need to walk back into, wouldn’t this one be it?”). The Jesus Boy’s sense of calm and its effect on her classmates make Frannie wonder if there is some truth to Samantha’a musings, but a climactic faceoff between him and Trevor bring the newcomer’s human flaws to light. Frannie’s keen perceptions allow readers to observe a ripple of changes. Because she has experienced so much sadness in her life (her brother’s deafness, her mother’s miscarriages) the heroine is able to see beyond it all—to look forward to a time when the pain subsides and life continues. Set in 1971, Woodson’s novel skillfully weaves in the music and events surrounding the rising opposition to the Vietnam War, giving this gentle, timeless story depth. She raises important questions about God, racial segregation and issues surrounding the hearing-impaired with a light and thoughtful touch.”
From School Library Journal:
“With her usual talent for creating characters who confront, reflect, and grow into their own persons, Woodson creates in Frannie a strong protagonist who thinks for herself and recognizes the value and meaning of family. The story ends with hope and thoughtfulness while speaking to those adolescents who struggle with race, faith, and prejudice. They will appreciate its wisdom and positive connections.”
“Eleven-year-old Frannie can’t quite understand the Emily Dickinson poem that she is reading in school. It is about feathers and hope, something that isn’t often a topic in Frannie’s part of town. A new student called Jesus Boy is the only white kid in her sixth-grade classroom, and Frannie and the others aren’t sure what to make of him. At home she is worried about her mother, who is pregnant again following two recent miscarriages. She wonders how this baby will disrupt their household, displacing her as the baby of the family. Set in 1971, the story deals with issues of race, faith, family, and disability. Frannie begins seeing there is more to the world around her than the people in her life, including her hearing-impaired older brother, Sean. Her view and perspective are also changed because of her growing friendship with Jesus Boy.”
Books by Jacqueline Woodson:
Miracle’s Boys ISBN 978-0142415535
Hush ISBN 978-0142415511
If You Come Softly ISBN 978-0142415221
Books about African Americans:
The Crossover by Kwame Alexander ISBN978-0544107717
The Playbook: 52 Rules to Aim, Shoot, and Score in This Game Called Life by Kwame Alexander ISBN 978-0544570979
Solo by Kwame Alexander ISBN 978-0310761839
How do the feelings of Frannie correlate to African American youth today?