The Seventh Raven, by David Elliott

For those who love retellings of fairy tales, The Seventh Raven, by David Elliott, is a must-read (March 16th 2021, HMH Books for Young Readers)! Marketed as YA, but just fine for adults as well, and told in verse, it's the story of a girl whose older brothers are transformed into ravens when their father's thoughtless wish comes true. She must make a perilous journey and suffer many hardships in order to bring them back.

A woodcutter and his wife have been blessed with seven sons.

And these are the sons
Of good Jack and good Jane
The eldest is Jack
And the next one is Jack
And the third one’s called Jack
And the fourth’s known as Jack
And the fifth says he’s Jack
And they call the sixth Jack
But the seventh’s not Jack
The seventh is Robyn.

Robyn is not like his brothers, content with the hard labor of cutting wood. He is a dreamer, out of place in his family, pretty clearly coded as queer.

There are many days I wonder- why me?
Why was I born into this family?
This body? This time? This land? This space?
Did nature play a joke or simply misplace
the instructions about who I was meant to be?

And his father looks at him and thinks:

Robyn's a weakling
Girlish and slender
Too light on his feet
Too feeling too tender

Jack and Jane aren't content with seven sons; they long for a daughter. But when she is born, it seems she will die. The boys scramble to fetch water so the priest can baptizer her. In the rush to fetch it the pail is lost...and the father, enraged, curses his sons.

Why must they live
While she lies here dying
Our daughter our prize
Our one consolation
these boys are a torment
no better than ravens

And the boys twist and change, and fly away on their dark wings, and the baby, little April, lives.

April is raised not knowing she has brothers, and that their fate eats at her parents.  She learns the truth when she's almost grown, and sets out find them...and in true fairy tale style, must suffer and persevere on a seemingly hopeless quest till she reaches the glass castle where her brother roost.  And there she makes a sacrifice to transform them...one not entirely welcomed. 

There are different poetic voices used for the characters--the parents, the older brothers, April, and Robyn.  At its best, the words sing and make sharp pictures in the mind.  It didn't quite work for me because I got hung up on something other readers might not give two hoots about--the woodcutter and his family quite often use words that don't seem appropriate for simple wood-cutting folk.  I found it jarring.  If it had just been Robyn the dreamer or April the questor I wouldn't have minded, but the brothers speaking of the wildwood's "strident harangue" or Jane contemplating a "rank maze of resentment and acrimony" and such gave me pause.  It seemed to me that the poetry was being put ahead of characterization.

That being said, there are moments of real poetic power, and moments where the words make intense energy on the page.  And it is a beautiful book, with black and white illustrations adding much atmosphere, and it did stick in my mind more keenly than I thought it would while I was reading and fixating on Latinate words.  Robyn, in particular, is a memorable character, who made a huge impression on me, and the twist of his ending was perfect/sad/happy, and April is everything a brave heroine should be.

It won't be everybody's cup of tea, but if words and rhythm and reading slowly and deeply are your thing, and you appreciate a good retelling, do give it a try!

disclaimer: review copy received from the book's publicist.


  1. Oh interesting! I've been shying away from novels in verse--I'm not sure why, maybe because I'm afraid they won't be well done? This one might lure me into it.

  2. I do love a good retelling! I'm putting a hold on this right now.

  3. This sounds like a nearly perfect book -- a fairy tale retelling in verse. This is definitely one I will be looking for. Thanks for the review.

  4. This sounds really interesting. The kind of vocabulary you mention would put me off as well though. I'm curious to see the illustrations.


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