I always keep an eye out for a good fairy tale retelling, and this one has magical music as a bonus. This one had been on my radar for a while (thanks, Charlotte!), and was the last book I finished for the 48HBC.
Nightingale’s Nest by Nikki Loftin. Razorbill, 2014.
Twelve-year-old Little John’s family, never well off, has been reeling ever since his little sister fell out of a tree and died. The funeral expenses ate up their small savings. His mother keeps forgetting that she’s dead and has told Little John that’s he’s too old for hugs, while his father drinks through the rent and grocery money. The only person in town with the money to hire him is the despised Mr. King, owner of a large chain of stores. It’s while helping his dad work for “the Emperor” that Little John hears the most beautiful singing he’s ever heard coming from a tree in the yard next door. It’s a young girl, described in the text as brown-haired and brown-eyed, and shown on the cover as African-American. She introduces herself as Gayle, the latest foster child taken in by mean Mrs. Cutlin. Mrs. Cutlin says that her name is Suzie and that her parents are dead; Gayle says her parents have just flown away, and she needs to stay in the tree so they can find her. Little John can’t really believe her on that, but he can’t deny that her singing heals his cuts. He trying to keep her safe from Mrs. Cutlin and her son brings her to the Emperor’s attention. More than anything, the Emperor wants Gayle to sing for him in his recording studio, so much that he’s willing to offer Little John anything to convince her. Little John sees how Gayle shakes when she’s near him – but surely just singing once for him couldn’t be so bad?
This is a beautiful, heartbreaking book, with everyone hurting each other so much even when they’re trying not to and a hopeful but not happy ending. I really wanted to love it – the characters, the setting, the feelings all done so well – but I’m not sure that I really did. I was angry with Little John’s parents for being so hard on him because of losing their daughter, instead of treasuring the child they had. Maybe it’s that Hans Christian Andersen (again) isn’t my favorite, and maybe also that it’s got the plot motivated by one dead child and one abused child, things I know don’t really work for me. And maybe that I just wasn’t quite in the mood for heartbreak that day. I enjoyed it, but it didn’t quite touch my heart the way it did some people’s. As a child, though, I went for the sad books more often than I do now, and I’m pretty sure that the parents’ failings wouldn’t have struck me so hard before I was a parent myself. So I’d still highly recommend this to readers, middle grade and above, in the mood for quietly heartbreaking magical realism.