Wednesday, March 2, 2016

#Cybils 2015 Finalist Review: Blackbird Fly by Erin Entrada Kelly

Analyn Yengko, or Apple as she was nicknamed by her deceased father, migrated with her mother from the Philippines to Louisiana when she was four years old.  Now in middle school, Anna still feels some shame about her penny-pinching mother, who works hard, but also makes mistakes speaking English, still cooks Filipino food, and doesn't want Apple to forget her heritage.

But while Apple feels estranged from her mother, she really wants to connect with her dad through their mutual love of the Beatles.  If only Apple's mother could understand that and buy her that inexpensive guitar she so desperately wants to have.  But no guitar playing is allowed in her house, only studying and working hard in school.  Desperate, Apple steals $100. from the school's music, feels guilty and gets caught putting it back.  Part of her punishment is that she is no longer allowed into the band room.

Meanwhile, Apple and her two best friends Gretchen and Alyssa have also discovered boys, but boys haven't discovered Apple.  In fact, Jake thinks she's Chinese and eats dogs, a comment the will follow Apple around school once it out there.  But even worse, Apple also finds out that she is number three on their Dog Log, a list complied by the boys of the school's most unattractive girls, and she is devastated.   But when she hears that popular boy Braeden wants to dance with her at the Halloween dance, Apple hopes thing have changed.  She goes to the dance with Evan Temple, a new boy from California, but it becomes clear that Braeden was a set up and Evan leaves when he finds out he was supposed to be ditched.  Suddenly, Apple is really alone.  In the Girls' bathroom, she runs into Heleena, an overweight girl who has always been a target for the  popular kids.

By Monday, Gretchen and Alyssa can't detach from Apple quickly enough.  Ostracized by her classmates, Apple goes to the library for lunch instead of her usual place under the tree with her friends.  After checking out a book about playing guitar, Apple heads over to the band room to leave an apology for the teacher when Alyssa finds her there and accuses Apple of stealing again.  Next, Apple apologizes to Evan.  And suddenly, things begin to change for her.  Sure, the boys still taunt her about being on the Dog Log, but with the help of her new friends Evan and Heleena, Apple discovers who she really is and what most important to her.

Blackbird Fly is so different from what I expected given the cover illustration.  Middle school is the pits anyway, but Erin Entrada Kelly gives the reader an excellent, realistic picture of what a real hell it can be when you are facing the racist and xenophobic attitudes of your classmates, people you have to be near day after day.   I have to admit these were difficult parts of the novel to read, but don't gloss over them.

Apple really grows in the coming of age novel and that is a truly positive aspect of the book.  Kelly really has created well-drawn characters in Apple, her mother, Evan and Heleena.  Interestingly, Gretchen, Alyssa and the boys they like have a kind of opaque quality that renders them as shallow as they really are.

All in all, I found Blackbird Fly to be an interesting look at bullying because of difference, at how easily misinformation about cultures spreads and I think it is especially timely given all the recent talk immigrants and about closing our borders (FYI, I am a child of an immigrant).

My only problem with the novel was why didn't the creators of the Dog Log and their girl supporters get in trouble for what they were doing?  They shouldn't have gotten away with it because it will just keep happening to other girls.

On a lighter note, I found the 2FS4N (2nd favorite song for now) at the beginning of each chapter a nice way to give readers a hint of what to expect in that particular chapter.   I also love the Beatles and yes, I did listen to my Beatles playlist after I finished the novel.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

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