Young Adult Fantasy is one of my favorite genres, particularly because the writers don’t always have to worry about the details because the targeted audience is more capable of suspending their disbelief. I, however, am the sort who always enjoyed ripping stories apart, especially when I actually do like them. This works out well for me with films, but when it comes to books and comics, I tend to obsess. I spent years avoiding mainstream American comics because I could see, even from a casual glance, things that would drive me nuts. (Eventually, I did give in, but you’ll most likely see me ranting about this in a later review.)
So, Nightbird. Overall, I like this book. It didn’t bore me or frustrate me and it tells a decent fairy tale. However, there are so many things that bother me about it, I’m not quite sure where to start. First of all, there were multiple points in the story where the main character-who, of course, has the nickname ‘Twig,’ because deities forbid a main character have a typical name-sounds like an adult writing down a story from her childhood but still has a child’s perspective. She is a strange mixture of bitter cynic and naïve preteen, and seems to glorify both her home and the people she admires. It seems likely that the author really loves the woods and owls and delicate girls who look like fairy tale princesses.
Character-wise, Twig’s new friends seem absolutely perfect, and the mother, Sophie, who caused her cynicism and bitterness is never called out. Her actions make very little sense, but there is enough of a pattern that you get the sense she actually thought things through, though not well. Sophie felt like one of those people who expects the world to be easy and then breaks when she realizes she was wrong. I might have actually liked the story better with Sophie as the narrator, since she was the character with the most flaws and depth, but we only ever view her actions through Twig’s seemingly non-judgmental perspective. Speaking of perspective…
One of the major reasons I tried to avoid American Comics growing up was because the ones I read had unexplained time skips, and this book is definitely an offender. I’m not really sure what time of year this book begins, because it starts with neighbors arriving in ‘late spring’ but then school ends. So, did they move across three states in May with two school-age children? As far as I can tell, that’s the sort of thing that only happens in books, but oh well, if you say so. The characters then spend some of their time over the summer trying to break a curse, for which the clues turn up just when the girls need them. The rest of their time together is glossed over, because why show the girls becoming friends when you can just have one girl announce that they’re SOUL SISTERS after having met two or three times?
There are times in the story that Twig seems rather stupid for not figuring things out-like maybe that they should search the house for more clues after they found the first one-but at other times, the next clue in the mystery comes out of nowhere. There is a subplot about a vandal in town, which ties in to the main plot, but there is no way for the reader to guess the culprit. It simply comes out of nowhere and goes nowhere, since the vandal just served to make the town suspicious about the actual secrets hidden in its history. So, um, yeah, obvious plot device.
One of the things that did irritate me for a few minutes was a scene where Twig does something she knows she’ll get in trouble for. The scene lasts about three pages and builds up the suspense; we’re actually going to see her mother yell! She’ll be something other than wishy-washy and neurotic! But nope, as soon as the scene ends Twig starts talking about the rest of the summer; we never even find out if her mother noticed she was out later than expected. I actually had to stop there for a moment to make disgruntled noises.
Overall, this book feels more like a love story to small towns in Massachusetts, to its history, and to fairy tales than a well-written YA book. Maybe a lot of the characterization and action was cut by an editor who wanted it to be shorter so that it could be in the Children’s section instead of the YA section. I couldn’t find anything to tell me which one it belongs in, but I’d probably put it at a 4th grade reading level? Maybe? I read A Wrinkle in Time in 3rd grade, I think, but this definitely feels younger than that. Honestly, if you read this and like the idea but not the execution, like me, then I’d suggest the Claymation movie ParaNorman or the books Owl in Love or Wizard’s Hall, instead. Norman, Owl, and Henry are better examples of children who need to deal with adult problems and do so realistically, while remaining children.