Phoebe’s Heron by Winnie Anderson

Phoebe’s Heron

Winnie Anderson, Author

Crispin Books, Historical Fiction, Feb. 5, 2018

Pages: 226

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Nature, Birds, Wildlife, Colorado, Conservation, Friendship, Courage

It is 1900. Twelve-year-old Phoebe Greer, her family and Nurse Daisy move from their home in Denver to a newly built cliff-top cabin in Ridge, at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. The doctors recommend that the dry, fresh, clean air in the mountains may be the cure for her mother’s tuberculosis.

While Phoebe wants her mother to get well, she misses her busy city life in Denver (a dusty cow town) and her best friend Lisbeth, whose parents own Denver’s finest millinery store. The two girls have spent hours in front of the looking-glass parading with fancy feathered hats on their heads. They also have fun trying to teach the millinery shop parrot to curse.

Phoebe loves to draw. Her father gives her a sketchbook so she can explore her new surroundings. She follows Bearberry Trail which winds along Bear Creek and ends up at a breathtaking lake. There she meets a local boy, Jed.  However, Jed is a plume hunter, a commercial hunter of birds. He desperately wants to find a great blue heron, whose feathers are in great demand for women’s hats.

The two youth gradually become friends. Jed shows Phoebe the delights of the natural world in the Colorado Rockies, and their friendship deepens. They meet at a large flat rock in the lake, where she sketches and he catches large trout with his swift bare hands. Her views of living in the wild and nature begin to change her and blend nicely with her passion for capturing its beauty in her artwork. One day, Phoebe sees a magnificent great blue heron in the creek, which she sketches in her book. She does not tell Jed about spotting this bird, because she can’t bear the thought of this majestic creature losing its freedom even though it is “survival” for Jed.

Phoebe hears about the Audubon club that wants laws to protect birds from being killed for their feathers. Phoebe’s mother tells her that the movement has come to Denver and a chapter is forming. But Phoebe’s mother grows worse, and soon, things may change.

What I love about this book:

Winnie Anderson’s debut novel is wistful and poetic. Her beautiful words create vivid imagery of Phoebe’s new life on the mountain top. The setting is so appealing that it becomes a beloved character. The rich dialogue paints a picturesque view of Colorado in 1900.  You want to leap into the story and observe the untamed country with Phoebe and Jed.

This hopeful and heartwarming coming of age story is about a teen dealing with a sick mother, family relationships, friendships and her passion to draw everything around her. I enjoyed watching her transformation from a privileged Denver teen to a thoughtful one who observes and develops her own beliefs. The characters are authentic, most are good-hearted but others are privileged and snobby.  This creates a dilemma for Phoebe in her friendship, with Jed, when her father tells her to stay away from him.

Phoebe’s view about use of bird feathers in the women’s millinery business becomes unbearable for her.  She takes a stand with both of her friends, Lisbeth and Jed, and tells them she wants to work with the Audubon club to protect the birds. The author makes short references to the early Audubon Society throughout the book.

Phoebe’s story is loosely based on Sarah Orne Jewett’s “A White Heron,” written in 1886. This book will be of interest to birders, Audubon Society members, and anyone interested in the early conservation movement at the beginning of the 1900s. This is the sixth middle grade novel I’ve reviewed in the past year that includes birding and conservation. It is an excellent novel for teens interested in environmental and conservation issues. This is a thoughtful story to read as Earth Day approaches April 22.

Resources: There is a detailed “Author’s Note” at the end the delves more into the Audubon Society. This book is an excellent classroom discussion book because of the many themes.

Winnie Anderson holds an MA in Writing from Johns Hopkins University, and has had stories published in various children’s magazines. This is her first novel. She lives in Baltimore, MD, and Evergreen, CO. Visit Anderson’s website.

Greg Pattridge is the host for  Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

The Someday Birds by Sally J. Pla

The Someday Birds

Sally J. Pla, Author

Harper Collins, Fiction, Jan. 24, 2017

Suitable for Age: 8-12

Themes: Birding, Family Relationships, Road Trip, Injured Father, Autism Spectrum, Different Abilities, Hope

Opening: “My hands aren’t really clean until I’ve washed them twelve times, one for each year of my life. I soap-rinse-one-soap-rinse-two, open my palms to scalding water, and repeat.  I do it quick, so no one notices…”

Book Jacket Synopsis:  Charlie wishes his life could be as predictable and simple as chicken nuggets. And it usually is. He has his clean room, his carefully organized sketchbooks and colored pencils, his safe and comfortable routines.

But his perfectly ordinary life has unraveled ever since his war-journalist father was injured in Afghanistan. Now his life consists of living with Gram, trips to the hospital, and wishing things were back to normal.

When his father heads from California to Virginia for further medical treatment, Charlie reluctantly travels cross-country with his boy-crazy sister, unruly twin brothers, and a mysterious new family friend, Ludmila. Charlie loves birding. Along the way he decides that if he can spot all the birds that he and his father have hoped to see someday, then maybe just maybe, everything might turn out okay.

Why I like this book:

This is a heartwarming, compelling and hopeful debut novel by Sally J. Pla.  It is convincingly written  with skill and compassion. The family is in crisis mode. Charlie’s father has suffered a traumatic brain injury and is not responsive. It’s difficult for the siblings to deal with the unknown, especially since they’ve already lost their mother. Fortunately they have Gram to ground them.

The characters are rich, messy and real. Charlie narrates and guides readers through the trials of a 12-year-old who is trying to navigate a world that he doesn’t understand. His views are brutally honest and sometimes hilarious. Charlie’s voice makes this story sing. Kudos to the author for not labeling Charlie as being on the autism spectrum. His siblings treat him as their annoying brother with quirky behaviors and different abilities, like birding. Readers will cheer for Charlie as he steps outside his comfort zone, takes some risks and has a little fun. Gram is stern and loving, but amuses her grandkids with her sideways swearing with phrases like bee-hind, flipping heck and gosh-dang. Ludmila has an Eastern European accent and a painful story to share.

The setting is vivid and realistic with an adventurous cross-country road trip for the siblings with Ludmila behind the wheel of a camper, Old Bessie. They visit observatories, national parks, museums along their way. The plot is multi-layered with many themes. It is fast-moving with suspense, surprises and endearing moments. It is a story that celebrates family, heart, connection, love, humor and hope. Their  journey is one of healing and acceptance for everyone.

Even though this book is targeted towards middle grade readers, it is a book that would appeal to older teens and adults. This novel is a treasure! You may want to visit Sally J. Pla’s website.

Resources: April is World and National Autism Month. You may want to check out the following links for more information: Autism Society, Autism Speaks, Autism Acceptance Month, and the National Institute of Mental Health.

Check other Middle Grade review links on author Shannon Messenger’s Marvelous Middle Grade Monday post.