Summer and Bird, by Katherine Catmull (Dutton Juvenile, October 2, 2012, middle grade, 384 pages)
Summer and Bird are two sisters, 12 and 9, whose parents leave them one cold night. When they wake to find themselves alone,they find a single clue--a picture message from their mother, that leads them to the gate she made to mark the entrance to the woods...but when they pass through it, reality disappears and they find themselves in the world of Down.
Down is a world of talking birds, and strange magic. In the world of Down, each sister must make her way through a maze of old stories, to find the truth about their parents, about the magic of the birds, and about who they, themselves, might become. But there is someone who wants to keep them in ignorance--a woman so crazed with her desire to become a bird herself that she has set herself as Queen over the world of Down, and in so doing caused the way to the paradise of the birds--the Green Home, to be closed.
When Summer and Bird find the long-lost true Queen of the Birds, all the answers are theirs...but after all that they have undergone--the secrets kept from each other, the betrayals (intentional and not), the lonely ordeals--will they still be true sisters?
My own question, the one that I end every book with--did I like it?-- is somewhat hard to answer. On the plus side, the world that the book explores is full of wonderful images and stories, and the themes of identity and sibling bonds are appealingly presented. I liked the dark fairy tale feel of the story--the danger is to a large extent psychological, and there are no fantasy monsters to kill. Rather, the two sisters must make their separate ways through a threatening landscape of great strangeness, with Bird going alone to the heart of th darkness that overshadows the land of the birds...And she is only nine years old, and behaves very much as a young child might, which I appreciated.
But this is a story that is strongly conscious of itself, and this is not my personal favorite type of book. The narrator is intrusive, in the sort of underlining that the characters are Characters in a Story way, as opposed to addressing the reader way. For instance:
"Is it really so easy for Bird? Can she walk away from her family with only a little sadness?
Perhaps she is walking away from something else as well. Perhaps she is walking away from something she did--something that she doesn't want to think about.
Perhaps she feels a little guilty. Or more than a little." (page 105 of ARC).
And while most of the book is written in straightforward third person past tense, there are sections in first person present that likewise underline the point that this is a Story:
"Air rushes around the girl, waterfall falling up. No: she is falling.
The summer girl opens her eyes to blue. She is falling through an immense sky, a huge and cloudless empty blue. Her ears are full of rushing silence." (page 141 of ARC).
Fortunately for my own reading pleasure, these two aspects of the book diminish after around the half-way point, and I was able to lose myself in the thrill of the story and enjoy it, instead of putting the book down forever, as I was half tempted to do. And looking back on it, I feel much more favorably toward it than I did when I was actually reading it...I imagine that it is one my mind will replay to me while reading, for instance, the way ones mind does with things that have made a big impression.
Viz child appeal: I think there are a number of young readers who will be willing to accept more openly than I was the way the story was told; I also think there are many who will find it jarring. And the same, I think, goes for adult readers. If I had to recommend it as a read alike, I think I'd go with Wildwood, by Colin Meloy...though that has more immediate Action and the dangers are more physically present.
Review copy received from the publisher.