Author: Katherine Catmull
Genre: Fantasy, Fairytale, Middle Grade
Publisher: Dutton Juvenile
Publication date: October 2 2012
Hardcover: 384 pages
An enchanting—and twisted—tale of two sisters’ quest to find their parents
When their parents disappear in the middle of the night, young sisters Summer and Bird set off on a quest to find them. A cryptic picture message from their mother leads them to a familiar gate in the woods, but comfortable sights quickly give way to a new world entirely—Down—one inhabited by talking birds and the evil Puppeteer queen. Summer and Bird are quickly separated, and their divided hearts lead them each in a very different direction in the quest to find their parents, vanquish the Puppeteer, lead the birds back to their Green Home, and discover the identity of the true bird queen.
With breathtaking language and deliciously inventive details, Katherine Catmull has created a world unlike any other, skillfully blurring the lines between magic and reality and bringing to life a completely authentic cast of characters and creatures.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone
How did I get this book: I got a review copy at BEA
Why did I read this book: I was attracted by the cover (what a beautifully packaged book) and captivated by the blurb.
Once upon a time, a young man fell in love with the beautiful Swan Queen. He stole and hid her swan robe and the Queen fell in love with him because he had part of her soul.
Once upon a time (and at around that same time) a dancer wished for nothing more than to be the Queen of the Birds. She found the hidden Swan Queen’s robe and took it away leaving the Swan Queen stranded as a human and her bird-courtiers bereft and lost. The dancer became the bird’s Regent and a Grand Master of Events.
Once upon a time (but only a few years after the aforementioned events) two young sisters – Summer and Bird – woke to find their parents gone. A cryptic message from their mother lead then to the forest and to Down, a fantastical world inhabited by talking birds and the string-pulling Puppeteer. There, they separated and each took a journey to find not only their parents but also their true souls.
Summer and Bird unfolds with the parallel stories of the two sisters, following their quest and coming of age arcs in a Fantasy setting with a fairytale atmosphere and patterns. Those elements are incorporated in the story mostly via its narrator – an omniscient, self-aware narrator who often foreshadows by using asides – in a way that makes Summer and Bird a book that is very much aware that it is a fairytale.
This proved to be a mixed bag for me. This self-awareness works beautifully when it comes to its themes. At its core, Summer and Bird is a raw and poignant tale of a family split apart by both external and internal events. Things are somewhat set in motion by its villain but there is a clear acknowledgement that what matters here are the actions and reactions of the main characters. The examination of Summer and Bird’s parents’ relationship for example and especially how it came to be, what brought the two together and what kept them together is incredibly thought-provoking. It is a relationship that follows a recurring motif in fairytales: the folkloric creature who is both human and animal and whose magical pelt is stolen by a lover. Two of the main emotional focal points of the novel are both this morally ambiguous relationship and the way it affects the lives of their children. Another one is the relationship between the two sisters and the way they feel about each other, about their parents and how they see the world. Theirs is a charged relationship, fraught with loyalty and devotion as well as rivalry and jealousy.
There is also a great exploration of themes like what happens to a kingdom when there is a complete reliance on a monarch to lead them – and what happens to the subjects when their Queen disappears. I loved to see the different possible ways that such an event can affect lives – there are those that despair and those who find a different way and so on and so forth.
That said, this self-awareness also kind of allows the writer a freedom to play with the characters and plot arbitrarily, in a way that didn’t quite feel natural. There is a very strong tendency to explain things via innate talent and hard-wired (rather than acquired) abilities that didn’t sit that well with me.
The lyrical prose often felt forced, especially when it involved frustratingly cryptic conversations:
‘It might mean just exactly that,’ said Ben. ‘But it might also mean more than that.’
Granted that in a way, those actually play really well with the fairytale motif and how one can read stories and clues in different ways but unfortunately those types of conversations were repeated many, many times. The meandering, overlong and repetitions nature of the story detracts from any sense of urgency. I am not exaggerating: when under extreme emotion characters would simply sit down to cry abundant tears and given the number of times this happens, those tears would be enough to fill an entire Ocean of Angst.
Despite all that, there is a lot here that is actually really, really good – the themes, the characters, the beautifully imagined world. I especially loved how this is a story that acknowledges the potential for darkness in fairytales without making this fable an entirely bleak one and this route is followed all the way through to its bittersweet conclusion. I’d really recommend it to those who love fairytales and who wouldn’t mind a slightly flawed (and perhaps a little bit boring, if I am being honest) execution.
Notable Quotes/ Parts:
“A map is a song. It’s different when different people sing it. . .You will make this your own song, sing it your own way.”
Rating: 6 – Good, recommended with reservations (and leaning toward 7)
Reading Next: Drama by Raina Telgemeier
Buy the Book: (click on the links to purchase)
Linda WOctober 8, 2012 at 11:38 am
Wow. This is a mixed bag, as you say. On the one hand, I love the premise. But I’m wondering if I’ll wind up frustrated.
The Avid ReaderOctober 8, 2012 at 11:52 am
I might give this one a try… I’m a sucker for the fairy tale stuff!
JohnOctober 8, 2012 at 8:22 pm
Sigh. The writing sounds annoying to some extent, but I love the idea of this book…and the pretty cover. Oh, I would read it just for the cover. It’s so bad of me, but it’s true.
ElizaJanuary 18, 2013 at 11:52 am
I recently finished this book and thought I’d pop by to share some of my thoughts about it. I probably rate this book a 7, leaning toward 8.
First, let’s take a minute to appreciate and admire how beautiful this book is. The cover, front and back, is not only gorgeous but relates so well to the story. Plus, there’s the lovely end papers and the chapter heading illustrations. All done so well and make up a book that’s a delight. Well done, Jason Holley (artist), Lori Thorn, and the creative team at Dutton.
The prophecies are annoyingly cryptic but aren’t all prophecies? Also, like anyone who receives them, Summer and Bird are annoyed with how cryptic they are. However, they only appear in the beginning of the book and I love how they play out in multiple ways throughout the rest of the book. As always, they are open to many interpretations and many of which are revealed in the book.
As to the crying, I find it amazing that more kids in books don’t cry when everything becomes so overwhelming. These kids lose their parents, become separated, and face many scary obstacles. Given their ages (13 and 8), is it wonder that they cry? I kind of like that crying isn’t a sign of weakness. Sometimes, I feel that books make out that either you’re a weak crybaby or a strong hero. You can have a good cry when you’re overwhelmed and then pick yourself up and continue on. That said, a few breakdowns can be understood, but, really, the amount of times the characters in this book do break down, is a lot. I think there’s one point where Summer breaks down is sobs at least 3 times in 5 pages. It does get to the point that the emotional impact is dulled through repetition. I didn’t find it a fatal flaw but a flaw nonetheless, one that a little more careful editing could have fixed.
The Puppeteer was an excellent, creepy villain. I loved her introduction:
I loved the exploration of the complicated relationship sisters have. Their love for, reliance upon, and competition between each other. As a middle sister, I found it believable and very realistic.
I agree with you that the examination of the parents’ relationship also was complex and thought provoking. Like the selkie folklore I love so much, it definitely has a darker element to it that always leave an element of unease when reading about it.
I also loved how the power of storytelling was woven into the story.
And later on:
I really enjoyed this book while reading it but maybe more so later on. It stuck with me and made me think about it, which to me, is a sign of a really good book. There is a lot of imagination in the story, some interesting characters and ideas explored in this book. As this is Ms. Catmull’s first book, I’m looking forward to reading her future books and seeing her writing getting stronger.
AnonymousMay 1, 2015 at 12:26 am
This has got to be the greatest book I have read in my life. If fact, my only problem is that Bird didn’t age with me. No, for real. I was nine (like Bird) when I read this at first, but now I’m ten and have no one to relate to age-wise (but in every other way). So here’s to you, Cathraine Cattmull! I rate a 10!