First Time a Charm?: A debut novel that could be a Newbery contender
Debut authors don’t often win Newbery Medals (though it did happen last year). Guest blogger Sara Beth makes a convincing argument that Lisa Gerlits’ first novel deserves a close look in this year’s deliberations:
To be considered for the Newbery, a title must be distinguished in those now-familiar categories. Not included in the list is the fame of the author or the publisher’s advertising budget, but these are contributing factors. A book is only considered if it finds an advocate on the committee. Undoubtedly, there are worthy titles, from debut authors at small presses, that simply get missed.
I’m delighted to advocate for Lisa Gerlits’ debut novel A MANY FEATHERED THING. This book is a spot-on depiction of the utter middle-ness of adolescence. As a theme, the emotional realities of being 11 might seem too obvious, but here it feels more than enough. In Clarity (aka Clara), we feel the full weight of being a middle child in a too-small house with busy parents and no money for extras. She is fiercely protective of her best friend Orion and she takes him for granted. She hates that everything has to change and she embraces the ways she is changing. She shrinks, thinking everyone is looking at her and she wants everyone to see her and her art. She contains multitudes, full of uncertainty when she tries to unravel the knot of her feelings. For instance, when Orion asks if she ‘likes’ anyone, she reflects,
It seemed like everybody my age had a crush on somebody, but I wasn’t ready for this world of liking people and holding hands and kissing. It felt like another language I didn’t understand.
And this is true. Even as she struggles with jealousy over Orion’s new friend and ponders, “Birdman had said it was love, but that word felt too big and foolish and dagger-sharp.”
Birdman is Mr. Vogelman, an artist who teaches Clara how to see. Art and the making of it are everywhere in this gorgeous book. Rather than a separate theme, art is the vehicle for “interpretation of theme,” a perfect representation of adolescence. Here are just a few examples:
Clara loves Mr. Vogelman’s painting, a swirling mass of color and texture. She explains,
It made me feel small, like when I looked at the stars, but also powerful, like stardust was swirling down to me.
And then when she sees it again,
I still felt small, but it also made me feel like I was being drawn in, pulled through a doorway to another world, a world that wanted me. All I had to do was lean in.
Clara’s reaction to the painting tracks perfectly with her shifting feelings about herself.
Or when Mr. Vogelman takes Clara to a field, urging her to see the horses there, to draw their essence. Clara tries, each effort getting less “perfect” but becoming something more. Mr. Vogelman urges, “You must not be reminded of the old horse. That horse is from one minute ago, he is dead. Draw the now-horse.” And she does, acknowledging that,
If it had been anyone else, I would have balked at such commands. But Mr. Vogelman was different. I got the feeling he didn’t expect me to be good or perfect or correct. He only expected me.
Lesson by lesson, Clara is learning how to see the world around her, to see the hope even in tragedy, and to trust the person she is becoming.
There is much more in this rich and lovely book. Delineation of character is worth its own discussion, whether considering the beautiful and complicated Orion, the stony but hilarious Frouke, or the everything that is Birdman. But to do that, we have to pick up the debut novel from an unknown author. Won’t you?
Sara Beth West is a reader, a writer, a reviewer, a bird-watcher. A teacher for many years, she’s now studying Information Sciences, which might or might not land her in library work. She lives in Chattanooga, TN, with her family and a mid-sized domestic menagerie. You can find her online at sarabethwest.com.
About Steven Engelfried
Steven Engelfried was the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon until he retired in 2022 after 35 years as a full-time librarian. He served on the 2010 Newbery committee, chaired the 2013 Newbery Committee, and also served on the 2002 Caldecott committee. You can reach him at email@example.com.
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