Nightingale's Nest, by Nikki Loftin-- with interview, link to giveaway, and excerpt!

Way back in November I went to Kidlitcon in Austen, and had the pleasure of meeting Nikki Loftin.  This was lovely in and of itself, in part because I had enjoyed her first book, The Sinister Sweetness Of Splendid Academy, but as an added bonus she gave me an ARC of her new book, Nightingale's Nest (Razorbill, Feb. 2014). Nightingale's Nest is a reimagining of Hans Christian Anderson's story, "The Nightingale," but though there are clear parallels and echoes enough to please those who enjoy reimaginings for their own sake, this new story stands alone just fine.  

It tells of two hurting children, and the unforgettable summer when their lives intersect.  12 year old "Little John," as he is known, is working side by side with his father for the first time, on a massive landscaping project for the rich old "emperor" Mr. King, owner of a chain of Texas stores.  Money for John's family is tight as all get out, but deeper than that worry is the grief they are living with--John's little sister falling from a tree, and his mother has been driven almost mad with sorrow.

At the edge of the emperor's property, he meets Gayle, perched high in a tree--a foster child with sadness of her own.   She has lost her parents, but can't stop hoping they will find her again.  Just as they told her too, she has made a nest for herself, up in the tree with her small treasures, and she waits for them to hear her singing and come find her again.

And the magic of Gayle's singing, and just her own sweet self, start to bring some measure of healing to John and his father.  But Mr. King has heard Gayle's song too, and wants it for his collection of recordings.  And he will pay John for it, money that John needs to save his family, and John must decide whether or not to betray Gayle's trust....and the sadness of it all gets ratcheted up and up.

I had to put it down here and there, and go off and do other things, and I wondered if it was maybe too sad for the target audience of 10-12 year olds.  But I think it is a sadness that will be harder for grown-ups than for kids to read about--the child reader might well feel sorry, and be truly moved, but the grown-up reader (judging by my own personal reaction) will want to fix things, which of course is impossible.  That being said, it might be too much for younger children who are either strongly empathetic and/or vulnerable themselves, and though the ending resolves things in a hopeful way, it might not offer quite enough security and comfort to off-set the sadness (but again, this might be just my personal reaction!).

But in any event, it is a lovely book, moving and powerful.  Fans of fairy tale re-imaginings should definitely seek it out, and so should fans of magic mixing with the real world, and so also should those who love books that hit the heart full-on (but not so much those who want light fluffy escapist fun!).  And though the cover shows a girl, and though girls will like this book just fine, I hope it finds its way to boys too--it does, after all, have a boy as the central character...

And now, the interview!

Hi Nikki!  So Nightingale's Nest started out as a picture book, called The Treasure Nest.  What made it grow into a full-fledged novel? Did you keep coming back to it over the years, or was there a sudden surge? And how did the writing of The Sinister Sweetness Of Splendid Academy fit into it?

It took years, long painful ones! I think maybe every author has a story or two they must tell no matter what, and this was one of those for me. I could not stop thinking about that picture book, even after agents, editors, and critique partners had all gently let me know it wasn’t going to fly. I revised it as a picture book again and again. Then I tried writing it as a novel, but without any fairy tale connection. That didn’t work either.

All the while, I was doing school and library visits, talking about my debut novel, The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy, and my favorite fairy tales. Hansel and Gretel was at the top of the list, but The Nightingale was a close second. When I was messing around with the failed novel draft one day, I wondered if I could do something like I’d done with Sinister Sweetness, reworking a fairy tale in contemporary America. The Nightingale seemed a natural fit. I began to weave Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale loosely in with my initial story of a girl who climbed a tree and built a nest, and a boy who was afraid to climb up to join her… and once I realized it was the boy’s story to tell, it worked! I wrote the draft of Nightingale’s Nest in less than three months, and that draft is remarkable similar to the one that will be published.

Is The Nightingale a story that had particular meaning for you, as a child or an adult?

I was raised in a family of musicians. Our house was filled with instrumental and vocal music, and like reading, I don’t remember a day when I didn’t sing or play. (I played violin, cello, ukulele, and piano, all with varying degrees of skill.) So the idea in The Nightingale that the most beautiful thing in the whole of China was a song? I liked that as a child.

As an adult, I had a career for a decade or so as a Director of Family Ministries in the Presbyterian Church. One of my jobs every Sunday was to interpret the week’s scripture for the children, and present it in the children’s sermon. The act of thinking deeply about concepts like grace, forgiveness, and redemption, and distilling them for kids, left its mark on my brain. As an author, I found myself drawn to the selfless act of the nightingale in Andersen’s story, and in the way I saw grace at work there. I wanted to explore it further, and the form of a novel gave me the space to do that.

And did you ever have your own treasure nest? 

I still do, sort of! The desk I write at has these little shelves where I keep things that are significant to me: a picture of my grandma when she was young, my favorite childhood toys (two Weebles and a Raggedy Ann doll), a rock from a beach in Normandy, and love notes from my sons, among other things. I’ve always collected small items that meant something to me, little talismans against forgetting what really matters.

Was it hard writing a book in which the main characters were hurting so badly? (I imagine that you must have had to hug your loved ones more than usual....)

Yes, it was ridiculously hard, emotionally. I cried buckets of tears writing it, many of them sitting at various lunch tables in Austin with my mom! (She lives close by, and I figured she was about the only person in the world who would listen to me blubber on about how horrible Little John’s life had been. I have the best mom in the world - she listened without complaint for all three of those months!)

and finally---what's next? 

Wish Girl! I just turned in my editorial revision for my third book, another middle grade with Razorbill. This one is also magical realism, with a bit more magic and humor, and less tragedy (although it has some of that, too). It’s about a boy who runs away to a valley to be away from people – and bumps into a girl who seems to think her wishes come true, and who may need the boy to save her life if they don’t.

I will look forward to it--congratulations!  Thank you so much for stopping by, Nikki!

Here's the scene from Nightingale's Nest when John first meets Gayle:

She just started humming under her breath, the same tune she’d been singing, but this time, it was softer. It still brought tears to my eyes.

At least I thought that’s what was happening. It must have been, because as I watched her, and listened to the music, the singing that got louder and louder, clearer and higher and purer, she got… fuzzy around the edges. Her outline was against the sun, I thought, that’s why she seemed to blur. It was awful hot; maybe it was just the flickering mirage of heat lines.

I wiped my eyes again, and squinted up at her. The more she sang, the more she seemed to shimmer against the sky, her edges feathering into the background blue.

Her voice was loud now, so loud I couldn’t have stopped the sound even by plugging my ears. Through the melody, though, I heard something squeal and slam behind me, on the other side of the fence.  A door.

Someone else was listening.

I turned and saw the Emperor, a hundred yards back, standing outside his back door, a deep purple, velvety robe flapping around his bony legs. He was staring at the tree, mouth wide open, watching the girl. The sunlight glinted on his wrinkled, wet cheeks. I wondered, for a moment, at the sight of a grown man crying. But her voice… it was the kind that could bring tears to anyone, I figured.

Cra-ack! I knew the sound of a branch cracking. I whirled back around.
That’s when I realized the girl had to be touched. She hadn’t started to come down at all—she’d started to climb out on the branch, toward me. She was perching, hopping like a wren, further and further out on one of the limbs that wouldn’t hold her.

I knew what was going to happen next. She was going to go out too far on the branch, and it would snap under her. She would fall, screaming, in a shower of small branches, leaves, and bark.

It was the nightmare I had every night.

I wouldn’t be there to catch her. I never made it to the base of the tree in time, my legs too small, too short, my hands reaching out at the ends of arms too weak to hold her anyway.

And I would have to watch her snap like a bough herself, on the ground, the blood as red as a cardinal’s wing.

It was the nightmare I’d lived once before. 

And the reason I had devoted my life to cutting down every tree in the world.

Every last murderous tree.

The girl screamed as she fell, and I raced to catch her, knowing I would be too late.

You can enter to win a copy of Nightingale's Nest, and a paperback of Sinister Sweetness at this blog tour giveaway.

Final note--uttermost kudos to Razorbill for the beautiful cover--there's nothing I noticed in the text that signifies Gayle's ethnicity, so it's a lovely thing they chose to show her as a shining, lovely, black girl.  More covers like this and no-one will bat an eyelash because  Rue in the Hunger Games is black (I hope).

So because I think it would be a good thing just for that reason (and not just because it's a good book) if lots of people bought Nightingale's Nest, here are all the on-line places you can get it:


  1. I'm really looking forward to reading this! I must make sure my library gets it (even if I hopefully enter the giveaway.)

  2. Oh, wow - this book sounds deep and intense!
    And, I agree with you about how sometimes we get the sads and think, "Oh, no! A kid can't really read this!" - but I think sometimes children feel the sadness, but can move on without dithering over what everyone "needs" to get better. :)

  3. I am usually very, very careful about picking up a book I know to be sad (or that deals with grief), but in this case I cannot wait. It sounds like such a marvelous, magical tale, and I have a soft spot about a mile wide for fairy tales and retellings.


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