The Unfinished Angel, by Sharon Creech (Harper Collins, 2009, 164pp)
High in the Swiss Alps, in an old stone tower, lives an angel. At least, a being who is pretty sure she or he is, in fact, angelic. But this being feels confused, and unfinished--without an instruction manual, or other angels to give advice, it's pretty hard to be sure what exactly an angel is, or what an angel is supposed to do.
"Me, I am an angel. I am supposed to be having all the words in all the languages, but I am not. Many are missing. I am also not having a special assignment. I think I did not get all the training." (page 2)
The arrival of Zola, an American girl, which strong expectations about angels, changes things. Zola's father has come to set up a school, one that will bring children from around the world together in peace. Zola's goals are more immediate--to get the angel to do something about the orphaned children scavenging a living in hiding outside the village.
And so the angel tells its story in short chapters, as Zola's convictions compel it to act more directly in the world, and all becomes well in the little Italian village. Which sounds a bit cliched, but is, in fact, what happens.
This is the sort of children's book that I think adults who don't normally like children's books will love, and will give to their grandchildren. There may be many adult readers who will consider this a beautiful book, one that nicely expresses the rewards of right action (although it does not underline morals with a heavy hand, and although it is about an angel, it is not a directly religious book).
Many adult readers who are less high-minded, but who like stories with orphans (like me) might enjoy the 'saving the orphans" plot very much, as I did.
Other adults, and perhaps a large number of the putative grandchildren referred to above, may not like the book. They may well have trouble with the angel's voice, one that inexplicably mangles simple English (although there are jarring bits of grammatical correctness). They may well not have much patience with the angel's occasionally peevish introspection, and somewhat confusing abilities.
On the other hand, they may well cheer Zola on as she briskly encourages the angel to do more.
They might find the angel's idiosyncratic, wacky use of English delightful. And for a certain type of kid, the angel's circumstances might strike a chord. After all, middle school doesn't come with an instruction manual either, and goodness knows, the right words and the right actions are something that takes practicing.
I'd be real curious to know if any children, perhaps the sub-set of intuitive, patient children, fall for this book. I am not even sure if my uncynical child-self would have loved it, or if I would have disliked it very much. I think I might have loved it, what with the medievally set up of an angel in a stone tower (such as the random example shown at right), and my own self-identity as a Good Child. But it is hard, as an adult, to be sure (even though I am still a big fan of stone towers and good deeds) I would have liked it, and I am actually finding it rather hard to figure out my Final Opinion of it even now...
Here are other reviews, at Tweens Read, and 3T News and Reviews.
The Unfinished Angel has been nominated for the Cybils in middle grade science fiction and fantasy.