The Aviary, by Kathleen O'Dell (Knopf 2011, middle grade, 352 pages), takes place in that best of settings (as far as I'm concerned)--a mysterious old house, full of old treasures...The Glenodoveer mansion was once a happy family home, but now eleven year old Clara is the only child wandering its rooms. She is the daughter of the housekeeper, who keeps a close and loving eye on her, making sure that Clara never over exerts her weak heart, never allowing her to have friends, or go beyond the grounds of the old house. And this being the late 19th century (or possibly the early 20th), social services never comes calling to check on this odd situation....
Old Mrs. Glendoveer has been Clara's friend and teacher, but now she is dying. Her thoughts are fixed on the five birds who have lived in the aviary outside ever since her husband, a famous stage magician, passed away thirty years before--and Clara, though she finds the birds frightening, honors her friend's wishes that the birds be cared for after her death.
These are not just any birds. As Clara is forced to become more familiar with them, she begins to uncover the dark mystery of the Glendoveer family. What happened to the six Glendoveer children, lost many, many years ago? Why does Clara's mother keep her so closely confined to the house? And is it possible that old Mr. Glendoveer's magic was actually....real?
With the help of a new friend, a new girl in town, whom Clara must sneak past her mother to met, the mystery is gradually unravelled...but in solving the mystery, Clara brings new danger both to the Glendoveer house, and to the strange, mysterious birds.
The mystery is fairly straightforward--I guessed all the key points, which is rare for me! But that doesn't mean it wasn't engrossing. Tons of atmosphere, a touch of horror, and the slow realization on Clara's part that magic is at work combine for a great read. The birds are fantastic characters in their own right, and their story is a gripping one, with a twist of magic of a sort I've never encountered before.
Clara's gradually awakening to the fact that she is being kept a virtual prisoner is very nicely done--although she feels compelled to deceive her mother, their loving relationship is not destroyed. Her actions force her mother to become more truthful with her, and in return Clara becomes more honest with her mother (although still keeping secrets!). It would have been easy to make the mother an unsympathetic character, but O'Dell thankfully avoids this.
The Aviary has a classic, old-fashioned feel to it, and I think it will appeal lots to the young reader who has no interest yet in paranormal romance (and to adult readers of children's fantasy like myself!). The reader who finds the cover intriguing will almost certainly enjoy it. My only reservation with the book is nothing to do with the plot, but rather one of mechanics--there are several letters in cursive sprinkled through the story. These might prove stumbling blocks to today's cursively-challenged child (I'm pretty sure my own 11 year old would have a hard time reading a few of them). So this is definitely one to give to the young reader confident enough to tackle a bit of difficult reading, or at least confident enough to pick up the key bits of information and more on!
(read for the Cybils Awards)