I had the pleasure of hearing Ms. Woodson speak at the International Reading Association conference in May 2012. She spoke during the young adult literature luncheon, a time for those of us who love YA books to hear one of our favorite authors speak while eating a delicious lunch.
Author: Jacqueline Woodson
Genre: historical fiction (1971)
Age group: young adult
Synopsis: Frannie is a sixth grade girl growing up in an all African American neighborhood in the 1970s. When the book opens, a new boy has just joined the class. He’s the only white person in the school. His appearance and his quiet calm demeanor earn him the nickname “Jesus Boy.” Even Trevor, the class bully, can’t seem to ruffle the feathers of Jesus Boy. Frannie, who has a deaf brother, begins a tentative friendship with Jesus Boy when she discovers he knows sign language. Frannie’s best friend Samantha, who is a regular churchgoer, believes that Jesus Boy might be the real Jesus Christ, come to save us during this time of chaos (end of segregation in America) and war (Vietnam). While trying to understand why Jesus Boy has come “over the bridge” to the African American side of town, Frannie keeps recalling the Emily Dickinson poem she read recently that begins, “Hope is the thing with feathers.” As Frannie tries to navigate a potential friendship with Jesus Boy, she ponders hope, faith, prejudice, and acceptance.
As a member of the American Christian Fiction Writers, I followed a recent discussion on one of our email loops about why Christian fiction doesn’t seem to win the same kinds of awards as secular books. There was a sense of “Why don’t our books get attention like their books? Where are our Newbery awards and Caldecott medals and New York Times bestsellers?” I happened to be reading Feathers as well as another book Crispin: The Cross of Lead by Avi at the time this discussion was going on.
Feathers is a Newbery Honor Book. Crispin: The Cross of Lead is a Newbery Medal winner. Neither book is considered “Christian fiction,” yet both of them deal with matters of faith and discuss Church, prayer, and Jesus. The Christian faith plays an integral role in both stories. So why do these books get awards and “Christian books” don’t? (I’m defining “Christian books” here as ones published by Christian publishers.)
I don’t know that I have a definitive answer to that question. Some might say it’s simply a case of better writing. But I can’t help thinking the overall tone as well as the endings of both books make a difference. In your “typical” Christian book, a major character comes to a greater understanding of their faith or perhaps is even converted. But in these books, characters questioned their faith (or had their faith questioned by others) without any dramatic change by any one character. Faith becomes a matter of discussion, something for you to ponder while reading, or maybe even a bit after finishing, but there’s no “come to Jesus” moment where a character finally “gets it.”
And even though faith played an important role in the books, it felt more like a part of the character than any kind of plot device. Other circumstances were driving the plot. A Jewish or Muslim child could read one of these books (and indeed many will as my incredibly diverse school is requiring these books for summer reading) without feeling like they were being preached to.
I could probably say much more on this topic, but I’ll get back to the book at hand. I enjoyed Feathers very much. Plot-wise it’s not a very complex book, but there are many layers to the story: Frannie’s interaction with her deaf brother, her relationship with her super religious best friend, what it means to have hope during difficult times, what it means to be prejudiced, what it’s like to be the new kid, and how to react to bullying. It’s a great book that opens the door to many interesting and important topics of discussion with young people.
I’ll leave you with a picture of Ms. Woodson autographing my copy of Feathers at last year’s International Reading Association convention. 🙂