Once again, friends know me well – this is one that my colleague Ms. S found for me. It came out in October and got lots of positive reviews, which I somehow missed entirely. Summer and Bird by Katherine Catmull.
This is a tale of what happens after the fairy tale. The Swan Queen took off her coat of feathers and fell in love with a human man, who hid her coat so that she would stay with him (but of course it was less simple than that). They married and had children and were happy. Or as happy as a couple can be when one remembers that she used to be able to fly and that her people might be lost without her, while the other knows that his beloved wife might be with him against her will. But the story begins thirteen years after they first fell in love. The children – Summer, 12, and Bird, five years younger – wake to find that both their parents have gone. They know nothing of their mother’s past. All they find is a note in pictures from their mother: a sun, a bird, a broken heart, a gate. They take this to mean that they are meant to go through the gate from their yard into the adjoining forest to look for their parents. Even this is not a straightforward quest, as they are separated, working in different ways both to get their family back and to repair the damage their mother’s absence has done to the Kingdom of the Birds. Summer meets an old man who leaves her a wooden egg to safeguard before he disappears; she learns about the Green Home that the birds used to migrate to and cannot without their queen; she makes friends with a wise old raven and journeys to the World Tree. Bird is taken in by the Puppeteer, a human woman who longs more than anything else to be a bird and the queen of the birds herself and plans to use Bird as her means to that end.
The story is filled with bits of nursery rhymes, poetry, and fragments of many myths, and a lesson repeated many times: everything really meaningful has more than one meaning. It’s all told in lyrical language that gives the book a mystical feeling, similar to a Patricia McKillip book, though written for children. One of the few negative reactions I had to this was, near the end, multiple people saying that Bird couldn’t be held entirely accountable for all of her decisions because of her youth. On the one hand, she is young, but on the other hand, the book is aimed at young people and is a story of young people doing their best, if not always right, to straighten out a situation that adults muddled in the first place. But this was a small misstep in book that I found otherwise close to perfection, beautiful and thoughtful, magical and real.