Image by Kimberly Farmer

Sara Beth West

(@fiftytwowest)

is a reader and a writer, offering book reviews and interviews with leading writers and thinkers.

On Art and Lisa Gerlits' A Many Feathered Thing

Currently, just outside my window, there are five reddish house finches, a mourning dove, and a chickadee, each vying for a spot at the feeders, even though there is ample room for them all.


Even without countless birds outside their window, most children know the joy of finding a nest, the way we tangentially (and from a distance) care for it, keeping periodic watch on the life-to-be inside. Every adult who's seen it knows there is something utterly humbling about a feathers-wet bird. The fragility alone is enough to shatter a full-grown human. What if it is harmed, what if it wasn't ready, what if it never gets its spot on the feeder? But also, what if it does?


In those ripe, raw moments, it has the hope of the universe in it.


So, too, with an author's first book. There is a thrum of energy around a debut. The sheer delight of the author shines through in every page, and we all get to share in the excitement of discovering this great new thing that has been brought into the world. With A Many Feathered Thing, Lisa Gerlits has delivered a debut that is finely crafted, wrought with tenderness and care, and fully equal to the work of our most established writers for young readers.

First it must be noted that the book is beautiful. Rosanna Tasker's cover and illustrations are perfect and worthy of their own moments of celebration. Especially for readers who love birds (and there are many of us), the cover will do the important work of helping this book get seen, so it can then be read. And oh, it should be read. Gerlits introduces us to Clara (or Clarity or CT), 11 years old and feeling the tumult of being in the middle: of her older sister and baby brother; of everything changing while everything stays exactly the same; and of figuring out how to be the artist she is made to be. There's no easy way to reduce Clara to a sound bite, and no good reason to reduce art to a synopsis. It all starts when Clara and her best friend, Orion, accidentally damage something that belongs to their terrifying old neighbor, Mr. Vogelman. They know they must do the responsible thing, but how? Clara is an artist and believes an artist must suffer to be great, so she decides to do all the hard things, starting with apologizing to Mr. Vogelman. Once she does, everything begins, and Clara learns to trust herself and her vision and her voice.


Along the way, Clara learns that in art, it is not enough to simply look at your subject. You have to look and look and look again until your subject takes on a depth of reality and nuance that changes you and your understanding. The looking and the understanding are all tied up together with humility and uncertainty. Whether in drawing, painting, sculpture, or collage; dance or drama, engineering or stories, this book reminds us that despite the uncertainty -- perhaps because of the uncertainty -- every creative act is a declaration of hope.


Be warned: this book is not without some sadness. There are hard times because Clara and the people around her are real, and hard things happen to real people. But there is hope. And that is why we are all here.


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The 2021 Newbery Medal selection committee spends the whole year considering titles. As always, I will be reading and reviewing along with the committee, keeping one eye on today's young readers and the other eye on each book's prospects. After each review, I'll offer my one-sentence take on medal-worthiness.


SBW's take: I am going to do everything in my power to get this book seen and read because I believe it has that kind of potential.


Previous titles under consideration:

The best books spark the best conversations! If you have thoughts to share, please feel free to email me at sarabethwest52@gmail.com. I promise a reply.

Every Wednesday, I send out something of a hodgepodge of ideas, a gathering of thoughts on books, culture, and unexpected moments of joy. Sign up here to stay in the loop!

The best books spark the best conversations! If you have thoughts to share, please feel free to send me a message. I promise a reply. 

 

Every Wednesday, I send out something of a hodgepodge of ideas, a gathering of thoughts on books, culture, and unexpected moments of joy. Sign up here to stay in the loop!

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