My family and I have developed a fun little habit of heading to our local St. Vincent de Paul Charity Resale shop about once a month to donate our excess and rescue books. Sometimes I discover homeschool gold like a 1980s set of Childcraft. Sometimes I find a book set I know nothing about but can gamble on for $5. Once I even discovered a small pile of Vision Books biographies from the 1950s. Even when we don’t find any real treasures we usually come home with something interesting.
This spring I was reading as many animal books as I could find in preparation for our Literary Zookeeper Quest Adventure. Combing through the St. Vincent de Paul children’s paperbacks I discovered The House of Wings by Newbery Award-winning author, Betsy Byars. While I know nothing about Byars nor her other Newbery winner, The Summer of the Swans, I decided that $.59 was a small gamble on a middle-grade reader that might offer my young readers a bird-themed book for their quest.
At 142 pages, this bittersweet little story is easy to read but is hard to love. This is not to say that the story is unworthy or a waste of time. Sometimes hard things are particularly rewarding when properly appreciated. This story is marked with sadness and may be too heavy for sensitive young readers. That said, it is also hopeful, well told, and develops beautifully.
The setting is nondescript mid-Twentieth Century. Sammy’s parents pack up their son and their belongings into the family car and leave Alabama for Detroit in the hopes of finding work and a better life. On their way north, they stop in Ohio at the family’s farm. Sammy’s widowed grandfather is elderly, confused, and eccentric, but he is fiercely independent and still reasonably capable. When Sammy wakes in the morning, he discovers that his parents have left him at the farm without even saying good-bye. Apparently they think it will be easier to get established in Detroit if Sammy spends the summer with his grandfather. Shocked and angry, Sammy attempts to run away from the farm. Chasing after him, Sammy’s grandfather makes a discovery that causes Sammy to pause and come back to the farm.
The farm is dilapidated and overrun with wild birds who are nesting inside the farmhouse. When Sammy and his grandfather return to the house with a wounded bird, the dark and heavy story slightly changes tone. At each exchange between the man, the boy, and the bird, the tone lightens and offers more hope. Clearly the bird’s injury offers a metaphor for the relationship between Sammy and his grandfather.
Never cheery, but also never truly depressing, this is an interesting story about trust. I intend to offer it to my ten-year-old as a free read and as a possible Quest offering. Certainly not a classic, but a worthy story.