Holding on to hope
2008 Newbery Honor Book
Hope is the thing with feathers / that perches in the soul, / And sings the tune without the words, / And never stops at all
The words of Emily Dickinson, mixed with the exquisite, spare prose of Newbery-honor author Jacqueline Woodson, float through this gentle story like a feather. On one hand, this is a book about bullies and good girls and social and racial stratification. On the other, it is the story of a family holding itself together through many trials.
It's 1971 in an African-American urban school when a new boy arrives in Ms. Johnson's sixth-grade class. Like the snowflakes that have been falling for days on end, this boy is quiet and still and . . . white. Bully Trevor brings this obvious fact to everyone's attention, Don't no pale faces go to this school. You need to get your white butt back across the highway. And who is this new boy anyway? How does he know sign language when he isn't even deaf? His inner calm, his long hair and his old eyes earn him a nickname Jesus Boy. Samantha, a preacher's daughter and the best friend of our narrator, Frannie, starts to hope he really is Jesus. Hope is the thing with feathers.Hope. That's what Frannie is supposed to have. She wants to hope for the future, but the past has been so difficult. She can almost remember the depression that followed the death of Lila, the baby who should have been her older sister. Pictures of the baby haunt her, and her mother's sadness about her subsequent failed pregnancies hangs as a backdrop in their home. But this is not a forlorn, hopeless family. Older brother Sean might be deaf, but Mama sees this as a minor setback, and shortly after Sean's birth, Mama and Daddy teach themselves sign language and tell Sean that he is lucky to be bilingual. This is an intact, strong family whose members love and support each other.
Even after reading this fast-paced novel twice, I find myself drawn back to the ideas that Woodson lays out here, in the words of Frannie: 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 even though he's busy cursing us out . . . Maybe Jesus is that hope you were feeling. I'm not sure myself. But I do know this book filled me with joy. And hope.