Those familiar with Jacqueline Woodson's work know that she doesn't shy away from hard-hitting themes for the middle grade set. In her earlier work "Locomotion," for example, Woodson tackled grief, trauma, death, survival, and hope – all in the brief span of 112 pages. Oh yeah, make that 112 pages of poetry.
In Feathers, her equally slim, most recent title, the environment may be less gritty, but the themes are no less deep or expansive.
I have to admit: I wondered how such a slender little novel would hold up under the weight of such topics as hope, healing, faith, and understanding. The answer is: It does – and without any heavy-handedness or manipulation on the part of the author.
For readers in the 9-12 age range, the world Woodson explores in "Feathers" may feel both distant and surprisingly near at hand.
There's a war going on. Everything seems unstable and off-kilter. And the sixth-graders in protagonist Frannie's class are grappling with who they are and how they fit into the world. But it's not 2000-something, it's 1971. The war is in Vietnam. And the friction at home is about skin color, not about religion.
It's a masterly choice on Woodson's part. The distance from present-day events keeps the book from becoming political and relieves it of some emotional tension. But the parallels enable her to help kids of the 21st century navigate an equally confusing and – at times – even hostile world.
"Feathers" begins when a new boy – a white boy – joins Frannie's all-black sixth grade class.
His presence, and his moniker – he's immediately dubbed "The Jesus Boy" and we never learn his real name – stoke racial tensions and, especially in the case of Frannie's best friend Samantha, raise questions of faith in a setting badly in need of salvation.
But Frannie, whose older brother is deaf and whose life is shadowed by her mother's miscarriages, has already been grappling with her own questions about understanding, bridge-building, faith, and hope.
The Jesus Boy's presence in her class helps to bring these themes into high relief and forces Frannie to confront the question of how hope could possibly be what Emily Dickinson says it is. A song that never stops? In a world like Frannie's?
One of the most refreshing elements of "Feathers" is Woodson's exploration of faith. Few authors dare tread this territory, but she does so with a grace that makes the topic both unintimidating and compelling.
Woodson's own religious views – whatever they may be – don't seem to enter into the discussion; what the characters grapple with on the faith front feels self-contained and unique to them.
When the Jesus Boy shows his true colors, for example, dashing Samantha's hopes that he really could be the returned Savior, it's skeptical Frannie who offers this striking revelation: "Maybe there's a little bit of Jesus inside of all of us. Maybe Jesus is just that something good or something sad or something … something that stays with us and makes us do stuff like help Trevor up even though he's busy cursing us out. Or maybe … maybe Jesus is just that thing you had when the Jesus Boy first got here, Samantha. Maybe Jesus is the hope that you were feeling."
In the end, both characters and readers can find lots to be hopeful about in the pages of this novel although not because a war ends, or prejudice disappears or because Frannie's new brother or sister will definitely be OK.
Rather, it's because hope starts with the little things. An afternoon sitting on Grandma's lap. Coming home to the good smell of Mama cooking chicken. And one black girl getting along with one white boy.
These moments are proof that, in spite of it all, hope does keep singing. They're also the moments on which this novel is built – moments which will continue to resonate with readers long after the final page.