Monday, July 29, 2013

Contemporary (mostly): FEATHERS, by Jacqueline Woodson

Woodson, Jacqueline.  2007.  Feathers.  New York, NY:  G.P. Putman’s Sons.     

Set in the tumultuous 1970’s when schools were supposed to be integrated but weren’t, a new boy comes to Frannie’s school on the black side of the tracks.  But this boy looks totally white, drawing fire from a few of the boys in the class, who call him, “Jesus Boy.”  Throughout this short, but powerful novel, Frannie wonders what hope means as she interacts with her deaf brother, her best friend’s tentative belief that Jesus boy IS Jesus, her loving mother who has miscarried several babies and is now pregnant again, her angry classmates and the new, sad white-looking boy who doesn’t seem to fit in on either side of the tracks.  


Frannie narrates the story with the honest questions and observations of an 11 year old girl in a sixth grade class.  This allows us as the reader to see everything she is explaining in a fresh light.  She adores her family and worries about her mother, who is more tired than usual.  The other characters in the story are as engaging as she is, realistically drawn and portrayed.

The book is set in 1971.  As Dr. Vardell points out in her historical fiction chapter of Children’s Literature in Action, the line of what is contemporary and what is historical is always moving (178).  On page 159, she also states, “some contemporary novels become historical with the passing of time,” but this book was written in 2007, so it was a choice to set this novel further back in time than today.  “A novel about the Vietnam War is also considered historical,” and this is set when the Vietnam War was still happening.  The primary conflict in the story—the white boy arriving in an all-black school-- is much stronger because of the time period.  Racism and segregation still exist, but not quite as obviously for some groups of students.  There are still plenty of places where the kind of racism and exclusion experienced by the characters in this book (as well as the judgment against her deaf brother) happen today, so the story still touches on today’s issues, giving it a surprisingly contemporary feel for a book set in 1971. 

For today’s students, the early 1970’s nears that “historical,” time period, but it is the time period in which I was born.  Some references will go over students’ heads, like why the mother kisses her deaf son’s ears when she hears news about the war on the radio.  Middle grade and YA readers may not even realize that the military was drafting for Vietnam and that being deaf kept him from being sent overseas and very likely dying.

Regardless, “books may help children discover insight they might otherwise not have experienced in their personal lives” (140).  This quiet, thoughtful book can help lead children to new understandings.  Frannie’s earnest desires to understand hope and why people are so mean help readers to ponder the same question.

The book is divided into four sections and ends with the arrival of spring, which symbolizes hope.  The chapters are short and fast-paced.  The entire book is easy to read, and hard to put down.  The climax occurs near the end of Section 3, when the class bully, Trevor, tries to show up Jesus Boy and ends up crying in the snow…and getting help from Frannie and Jesus Boy himself.

This book’s themes include hope, tolerance, and seeing the good in each of us.  As Frannie tells her friend, “Maybe there’s a little bit of Jesus inside all of us.  Maybe Jesus is just that something good or something sad or something…something that stays with us and makes us do stuff like help Trevor up even though he’s busy cursing us out.”  Then she adds, “Maybe Jesus is the hope you were feeling” (109). 

The book begins with the lovely poem, “Hope is the Thing with Feathers,” by Emily Dickinson, which Frannie does not understand at all until her brother tells her through sign language, “You’re a fool.  The WORD doesn’t have feathers.  It’s a metaphor.”  (Woodson uses italics to indicate communication through sign language.) Indeed, the whole book extends this metaphor about hope.  Yet the book never feels like it’s hitting you on the head with its message.

This book also deals with the truth that each of us is different in some way.  Frannie’s grandmother tells her, “You just remember there’s a time when each one of us is the different one and when it’s our turn, we’re always wishing and hoping it was somebody else.  You be that somebody else when you see that boy.  You be the one to remember” (73).  Being the outsider is hard.  Kids today have not lived through 1971, but everyone has experienced a time when they were the outsider.  It makes the book relevant to them.

When Frannie grows frustrated with why her good-looking deaf brother keeps showing interest in hearing girls who walk away when they realize he’s deaf, he signs, “When we were sitting at the window that day and I said what if we could build some kind of bridge from every window. …It’s like that, Frannie.  The hearing girls are the bridges.  They’re the other worlds.  They’re the worlds I can’t just walk across and into, you know. “ They both acknowledge she doesn’t understand and he explains further, “Because you already have both worlds, Frannie.  You can walk wherever you want” (83).  And yet this is only partially true.  If she were to walk across the bridge to the other side of town, the color of her skin would make her an outsider.

The dialogue helps set the time period, as the characters sometimes speak “jive,” a popular slang that began in the 70’s.  Black Power and the Black Panthers are referenced, smoothly woven in and around the plot line.  Frannie’s loving and easy banter with her brother is true to healthy sibling relationships, delightful in their humor, trust and love even while they tease.  When he asks Frannie why she didn’t go hang out with some of her classmates, she tells him she doesn’t like them.  He replies, "Beggars can’t be choosers," to which she answers, "I know…That’s why I’m stuck with you!" (68).  Then they walk home companionably.  The love and humor in their interactions helps keep the book from being too weighted down with such serious questions.

The author’s writing style is honest, simple, and clear.  The first person point of view, from Frannie’s perspective, tells things like she sees them.  She seems wise beyond her years, perhaps because, as she put it, “I wasn’t afraid of dying because dying had always been somewhere in our house, somewhere so close, we could feel the wind of it on our cheeks” (76).  There is a great deal of dialogue to communicate the action in the story and characters use bits of jive here and there, like using “cat” for “kid” or calling each other, “brother-man” when speaking one young black man to another.   The large amount of dialogue helps the pace of the novel move quickly.

The book is aimed at grades 4-8, but I think the children in the upper part of this range would find it more suitable.  Issues of race and acceptance are certainly something that students of all ages need to address, but the ages of the characters (11 and up) and the intensity of some of the scenes (like when Jesus Boy brings up the fact that Travis doesn’t have a daddy at home with him) might make it an emotional read for some student populations.  


“Set in 1971, Woodson's novel skillfully weaves in the music and events surrounding the rising opposition to the Vietnam War, giving this gentle, timeless story depth. She raises important questions about God, racial segregation and issues surrounding the hearing-impaired with a light and thoughtful touch. Ages 8-up. (Mar.)”—Publisher’s Weekly Jan 8, 2007

 "How does she maintain hope when her newly pregnant mother has lost three babies already? She also worries about her deaf older brother, Sean, who longs to be accepted in the hearing world. She sees the anger in the bully intensify as he targets Jesus Boy. With her usual talent for creating characters who confront, reflect, and grow into their own persons, Woodson creates in Frannie a strong protagonist who thinks for herself and recognizes the value and meaning of family. The story ends with hope and thoughtfulness while speaking to those adolescents who struggle with race, faith, and prejudice. They will appreciate its wisdom and positive connections."—School Library Journal April 1, 2007

 "Frannie is discovering that change does not always come with a bang. Sometimes it can be as simple as a new student showing up at school. The Jesus Boy, as the class calls him, is faced with being the lone white youth in a black school. He hails from across the highway that unofficially segregates the black and white neighborhoods. The students start grappling with what it means to be different.... Hope seems to spread through the cracks of the students' lives.  ... this book is dynamic as it speaks to real issues that teens face. It is a wonderful and necessary purchase for public and school libraries alike."- Voice of Youth Advocates, June 1, 2007


  •  Do an author study and read Between Madison and Palmetto, Maizon at Blue Hill, Locomotion, After Tupac and D Foster (she is very prolific). 
  • Read  Inside Out & Back Again, by Thanhha Lai, which is set in 1975.  Hà is newly arrived in America from Vietnam and must adapt to a new country, new language and a new school.  She does not know much, but she knows she does not fit in.  It is a novel in verse.  Compare/contrast Hà’s adjustment to the United States and a new school to Jesus Boy’s adjustment to his new school, as well as their treatment from others around them.
  •  Read Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, by Mildred D. Taylor and discuss the differences in racial tension between the decades of the Great Depression and the early 1970’s. 
  • Illustrate the poem, “Hope is the Thing with Feathers,” by Emily Dickinson and write a poem about hope.
  •  In school, do a brown bag report, as described on pg 165 of Children’s Literature in Action

I really enjoyed this book.  Frannie is an enjoyable person to spend time with.  I loved her relationship with her brother and family, in particular.  I also have an interest in American Sign Language (ASL), so I appreciated the side story of Sean and his life as a deaf young man and how his mother chose ASL for him instead of the newly created implant the doctors offered.  That is still a very big controversial issue in the Deaf community today.

 Works Referenced

 Dickinson, Emily.  1891.  “’Hope’ is the Thing with Feathers.”  Public Domain.
 Lai, Thanhha. 2011. Inside Out & Back Again. New York, NY:  HarperCollins.
 Taylor, Mildred.  1976.  Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.  New York, NY:  Scholastic, Inc.
Vardell, Sylvia.  2008.  Children's Literature in Action.  Westport, CT:  Libraries Unlimited.

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