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Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2006

ON THE BOOK TRAIL

"Each Little Bird That Sings," "The Girl With the Broken Wing"


"Each Little Bird That Sings," Deborah Wiles, Harcourt; 2006; 247 pp.

Each Little Bird That Sings

If you've ever lost anyone -- or anything -- that you loved, let Comfort Snowberger show you how to make it through. Author Deborah Wiles selects perhaps the hardest issue for children -- and grownups, as well -- to comprehend, and turns it into the stuff of good storytelling. "Each Little Bird That Sings" -- and the emotional travails of its heroine, Comfort -- is a thought-provoking, hard-headed look at death, as well as being a hearty celebration of the "messy glory" of life. The novel's first line is an absolute winner: "I come from a family with a lot of dead people." But Comfort's colorful family leads by example when it comes to knowing how to live.

Wiles' story goes right to the heart of the matter, and a funeral home provides the perfect setting. Yes, a funeral home, because that's where 10-year-old Comfort Snowberger lives, with her Uncle Edisto, great-great-aunt Florentine, her parents, her dog Dismay and her little sister, Merry. This is where her family conducts funeral services and organizes viewings and visitations for the living. (And if you don't know what a viewing is, take heart, Comfort's rather unusual obituaries -- she calls them "life notices" -- tell you everything you need to know.)

That's right: Comfort is a "funeral reporter" -- when she's not compiling a cookbook called "Fantastic (and Fun) Funeral Food for Family and Friends." You would think that a girl like this would know how to deal with death. But when Uncle Edisto, and a short while later, Aunt Florentine, too, drop dead, just like that, everything starts going wrong. Comfort's whiny cousin, Peach, comes to visit, and he won't leave her alone. Her best friend, Declaration, turns downright mean. And Comfort takes refuge in her closet with her dog, Dismay, to hide from the ugliness of it all.

Only when the plot thickens does Comfort realize just how strong she really is . . .

Set in a typically Southern rural town in Mississippi, the narrative of courage in the face of loss is warmed by plenty of humor and down-to-earth wisdom. Author Wiles manages to talk about death with remarkable honesty -- and without getting preachy, morbid or depressing. She picks up on all the "messy glory" of life -- the heartache and the disappointment of family losses and soured friendships -- and also celebrates it. Imaginatively written as a mix of letters, cooking recipes and the world's most hilarious obituaries, "Each Little Bird That Sings" is a step-by-step tutorial about death -- what to wear, how to behave, and most importantly, how to live beyond it.

Note: For children ages 10-14 years.

"The Girl With the Broken Wing," Heather Dyer, Chicken House; 2006; 152 pp.

Each Little Bird That Sings

Heather Dyer's second novel bears all the signature elements of her first, "The Fish in Room 11" (see column dated Dec. 6, 2005). A visitor appears from another world, makes life exciting for the central characters and then leaves. Oh, and of course, although quite a few people realize how odd this visitor is, no one really catches on to the truth.

Last time around, the visitor was a mermaid -- an unlikely one with stringy hair. This time around, twins James and Amanda are visited by an angel called Hilary, who hits their roof while she's out on a nocturnal flight and ends up staying with them until her broken wing has healed.

Now, is Hilary's wing really broken? You can never be quite sure, and neither are James and Amanda. It seems that the wing is only an excuse for a lonely angel to stay over with two human children. And because it isn't exactly simple to tell your parents that you have an angel in your bedroom, the children have to keep Hilary -- or at least her wings -- well hidden.

Like all secrets, it begins to unravel -- eventually. But until it does, Hilary gets the children into all sorts of comical scrapes: a school visit to a cathedral turns into a fiasco; a Nativity play gets reduced to a comedy; and a family picnic turns into an unplanned flying exercise.

It would have been better if "The Girl With the Broken Wing" had retained the easy style of Dyer's first novel, instead of duplicating the story line. Having said that, this is an entertaining, read-aloud story about an angel who is essentially good at heart but makes too much trouble for everyone without meaning to.

Note: For children ages 7 to 9 years.



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