“Little” John Fischer has a lot more on his plate than the average twelve-year-old. His family can barely make ends meet, and his sister died not too long ago, which he believes is his fault alone. When he hears the beautiful, healing song of a bird while out helping his father clear trees, he is surprised to find that the song is not from a bird, but a fragile little girl named Gayle. Little John discovers that Gayle is the newest foster child of mean Mrs. Cutlin, and after seeing the way the family treats her, he is determined to protect her. But when a rich man known as The Emperor (real name: Mr. King) offers to pay him in return for recording Gayle’s voice, our hero is left with a difficult decision: save his new friend, or save his family?
Those familiar with Hans Christian Andersen’s famously melancholy fairy tales will not be surprised to find that Nikki Loftin’s re-working of The Nightingale is a very sad read for the majority of its pages. Gayle’s voice has healing properties, but there is a lot of hurt here to be healed, none of which is smoothed over. Little John is largely friendless and possession-less, and his family is handling their grief in less-than-healthy ways. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, too. Readers who like their stories to be nothing but sunshine should avoid this book like the plague, to put it bluntly. Despite this, even when the book is at its saddest, all of the pain never feels anything less than real, each of its many tragedies completely plausible.
Perhaps this is because everyone, no matter how cruel they are, feels like a real human being. Little John and Gayle are credible kids in bad situations, and Mr. King is also depicted as less evil and more pitiable, a treat considering he seemed a little too evil at first. The true evil lies in Mrs. Cutlin, a character who is incredibly cruel with no redeeming characteristics. It’s shocking to see a character with the potential to make one’s blood boil in a children’s novel, and more shocking that she’s not remotely laughable due to how plausible she feels.
The characterization and plotting is a testament to Loftin’s skill as a writer, and the prose is just icing on the cake. Fairy tale adaptations, especially those of a magic realist sort, are so often a hit-or-miss sort of deal, largely hinging on whether or not the prose feels overblown. The first passage that impressed me was on page 3, and the gold in the writing never ceased. It even has funny moments. Little John might be in pain, but he can still crack a good one-liner as well as any kid in a “funny” book every now and then. The only flaw in the writing is that some of the bird references, such as Mr. King calling his recording room a “cage,” feel a bit contrived every now and then. This is, however, a small caveat in a book with so much else that works for it. After all, few books could pull off an ending like this one has and not make it seem even a little hokey.
Overall, though it’s early in the year, I would have to place Nightingale’s Nest at the top of my list of Newbery hopefuls. There may be a few on the committee that would find its highly unusual style a bit off-putting. They might not like the ending, which I will not spoil. But in the end, it’s a gorgeously-written, strange (in the best way) book with the power to move one to tears, even if they think they’ve seen it all before, and I think that what it has done is special enough to deserve consideration.
Published in February by Razorbill
Today's guest reviewer is Kim Broomall. She's awesome, and you should follow her on Goodreads.