New Books: Nightbird

By Alice Hoffman

Often, when I read books that I’m considering including in the magazine, I try to be as generous as possible. So I might not love a book but think it’s a good fit, for say, a 12-year-old boy who loves building things or a teenager who is obsessed with dystopian literature. Books, except for the great ones, aren’t often universally good, so I’m always trying to decide “Who would love this book?” If I can’t think of anyone, the book goes in the “nope” pile, but that’s relatively rare. Even rarer are the books that I love, that I want to stand on a mountain waving and shouting “Go read this because it’s just wonderful!” But that’s kind of what I want to say about Nightbird, Alice Hoffman’s new middle reader/young adult book.

It’s possible that I’m biased. This book has all the things I love: A family mystery, complete with historical documents and research. A lonely adolescent protagonist who feels isolated from the rest of the world until she makes her first friend. Fairy-tale magic that’s mixed with prosaic reality. People finding themselves and their passions and each other. And a boy who can fly.

Twig Fowler and her mom live lonely lives in a Massachusetts village, where they can’t risk getting close to anyone without revealing the family secret: Twig’s brother James has wings, due to a family curse placed on the men of the family by a witch centuries before. But when the Hall family moves into the witch’s cottage next door with their two daughters, Agate and Julia, Twig and James both begin to chafe at their imposed isolation. But is their little village really ready to accept a boy who can fly? When Twig and Julia find the spell that the witch used to cast the curse, they wonder if they can find a way to reverse it and set James free.

Hoffman’s modern-day fairy tale strikes just the right balance of whimsy and everyday detail. A handful of subplots — the town’s annual play about its local witch, a proposed development in a forest where owls roost, and Twig and James’ missing father — give the book a bit of nuance and keep it from veering to far into airy-fairy territory. Twig is an utterly likable heroine, and James manages to remain mysterious without becoming ridiculous or absent. And the language — oh, it just flows. This is one book you should absolutely read aloud for the sheer pleasure of hearing the words.

So go, read this book! Because, really, I think it’s just wonderful.