I had the wonderful privilege to receive an ARC (Advanced Reader’s Copy) of Caroline Starr Rose’s new verse novel, Blue Birds (Putnam Juvenile, March 10, 2015). Rose, a former teacher, debuted in 2012 with middle grade read May B. When May B. was published, the Merrimack Public Library had entered and won an Author Skype with Rose, and, as they say, the rest is history. I’ve been following Rose’s progress since, and when she offered an opportunity to read and review an early copy of her follow up novel as part of a week-long celebration, I jumped at the chance. (If you pre-order Blue Birds, you will have a wonderful opportunity to receive a special gift from the book’s author – see the end of the post for information about that!)
When book talking with young readers, I inevitably begin with the cover. I’d ask them if they notice anything that might be clues to what the story is about. Kids might guess that it’s a “girl book” given the two girls on the cover. Yes, Blue Birds‘ cover will definitely attract girl readers. It’s beautiful and tender. But I’d caution readers not to judge this book by it’s lovely cover.
This book is not a “girl book”. It is not a “boy book” either. It is not for the tender reader. It’s a book for readers of historical fiction, of action adventure, of sacrificial friendship. This is a book for readers who like to have their paradigms rocked, and for those who hunger for their faith in humanity to be restored.
Tall order for a middle grade or YA book. But Blue Birds delivers.
Rose thrusts her readers immediately in the middle of a dangerous and frightening time in American history. It’s 1587 and Alis and her family have been forced off their ship onto the island of Roanoke where they discover that the English settlement where they intended to live is deserted and has been burned to the ground. What has happened? Where has her Uncle Samuel gone? Is he still alive, or have the natives on the island – the Roanoke tribe – butchered him along with all the settlers? And what of their own fate?
As the only girl in the settlement, Alis yearns for kinship. She longs to break free from the cultural constraints of her time. Her adventurous spirit had been fueled by her Uncle Samuel’s stories. Captivated by the lush surroundings and fresh, clean air (a sharp, but welcomed contrast to London), and despite her parents’ warnings to stay inside the settlement, Alis steals away to explore and is surprised to find a girl like herself, yet so unlike herself, in the woods. “Kimi: Her hair falls to her shoulders,/like drifts of sand.// Alis: The hair at her forehead/is like a raven’s wing.// Kimi: With so many coverings,/the heat must oppress.// Alis: There is no shame/in her nakedness.// Kimi: Why is she unadorned?// Alis: Her jewelry is magnificent./Though my heart quickens,/I step closer.// Kimi: I’m drawn/toward her.// Alis: Closer// Kimi: Closer// Alis: Nearer.//”*
Kimi is the niece of Wanchese, who took over as weroance, or chief, after Kimi’s father was murdered by the previous English settlers. She is an obedient daughter, but her curiosity about the pale foreigner causes her to break from her group. To lie. To steal away to investigate this strange newcomer. She has recently lost her sister though illness brought by the English and in her grief, yearns for a sisterly friend. Could this strange, pale and frail looking intruder become that friend?
Alis and Kimi, innocently enough, share a child’s natural tendency to build friendship though an acceptance that acknowledges differences. They interpret these differences as opportunities to learn about something and someone exciting. Not so for the adults in their respective clans. Already George, a boy Alis’ age in the company, has learned to fear the natives and this fear broadens the animosity between the natives and the settlers. Yet, the girls continue to meet secretly and through hand gestures, gifts, and simple words, they invent a means of communication. Still, the growing tensions between the settlers and the natives threaten not only the friendship of these girls, but the very survival of the two sides. Amidst the beauty and promise of new life in a new world, there is murder and betrayal and Alis and Kimi are suddenly thrust in the terrifying center of it all.
Blue Birds is based on historical fact, and Rose has taken some liberties that she details in her Author’s Note. The verse is readable, shifting between Alis’ and Kimi’s points of view. Rose’s style communicates powerful emotions very well, though following the events in this format were a bit challenging; however, readers do not ask verse novels to be textbooks and Rose is able to weave an interpretation of history that forces ethical and moral questions to linger long after the novel is put down. Do not be surprised if your young readers next ask you for a book on the Lost Colony of Roanoke!
Alis and Kimi are true heroines and their story follows the tradition of timeless sacrificial love stories. When I finally closed the book what immediately came to mind was Romeo and Juliet. It was that powerful. I am not sure if Rose knew what she was asking, namely, What kind of love will tempt you to abandon everything you know? What kind of love will tempt you, in the midst of life-threatening danger, to disobey parents, elders, rulers, community leaders? What kind of love will you surrender to, knowing that it will make you an outcast?
I do hope one day, that we all have the opportunity to experience that kind of love.