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Two Books Help Imagination Take Wing!

Share Two new books explore the ideas of being an individual, having a gift, and fitting into society through stories of children who grow wings.

An adolescent girl begins to grow wings, causing her to examine herself and her place in the world. A young boy, who already has wings, finds the courage to embrace his uniqueness when he discovers that he is not friendless. In two new and exciting books, the startling imagery of winged children is used in ways that go beyond the expected and lead the reader to examine questions of diversity, tolerance, self-esteem, and community.


"Wings. Forming beneath the surface of her skin. Unfolding. Emerging.

"Once they were out, tiny and jointed, the itching stopped. Still, her fingers found their way to her back, exploring the topography of the small, growing protrusions. The new, downy feathers were reddish brown, like the hair on her head, so the sight of them in the mirror was shocking."

Book Cover Image In Growing Wings (Houghton Mifflin Company) first-time novelist Laurel Winter tells the story of 11-year-old Linnet, who suddenly and inexplicably begins to grow wings. Linnet is both fascinated and repelled by the changes, wondering if she might be an alien or a mutant or even an angel. She gets no guidance from her mother, Sarah. As it turns out, Sarah, as a child, had also sprouted wings, only to have them first painfully bound, then brutally amputated by her own mother. Sarah had run away from home a few years later and had never come to terms with her distress about her lost wings. Linnet later discovers that her grandmother, Sarah's mother, had also grown wings on the brink of adolescence.

Linnet's life begins to unravel quickly after these unsettling discoveries. She temporarily becomes separated from Sarah and comes to live in a sort of rural safe house, the residents of which have either wings, like Linnet, or "cutwings," like Sarah. Here, Linnet befriends a cynical teenage girl named Andy, who is tired of living in hiding and wants to take her chances living openly in the world. Linnet also discovers that there is a large, but secret, worldwide network of winged people.

Linnet begins to agree with Andy that a lifetime of hiding is unacceptable, even if living in the world means being seen as different.

Winter presents other broken or estranged families in Growing Wings; in addition to Linnet's single mother, abusive grandmother, and absentee father and grandfather, cutwing Ellen runs the safe house, along with her winged daughter Jan and grandson Jake. Andy and Charlie, a young man with mutilated wings, both were unwanted by their families. All the characters suspect the apparent hereditary element of the wing phenomenon, but their extreme aversion to discovery by the "normal" world prevents them from exploring their suspicions.

Because of their fear of suffering discrimination -- or worse -- at society's hands, those with wings have kept hidden, either living apart from society or hiding their wings or their amputation scars beneath loose-fitting clothes. However, as Linnet discovers, hiding prevents them from recognizing, helping, and supporting one another. It also prevents them from learning to fly: Wings hidden beneath clothing cannot fly any more than wings that have been amputated.

Much is made of flying in Growing Wings. None of the characters can do it or even knows whether it is possible. The winged adults appear to be too heavy. Linnet and Andy, as the lightest residents of the safe house, actively practice flying, gliding down a rope from a platform in a barn (where there is plenty of hay to break their fall!). At one point, Linnet finds herself falling from a window:

"The window slammed shut behind Linnet. A blast of wind held her against the rough siding for a second and then dropped her. Instinct -- or lessons learned in a hundred launches from the platform -- took over, and she was flapping, as strong and wild as the storm. ... A weird uplift took her higher, and for the first time she felt as if she were truly flying. If Andy had felt even a tenth of this running on the ground, faster than she could run, Linnet could understand why she loved it."
It is worth noting that Winter has Linnet and Andy make their first actual flights -- aided by helium-filled vests -- shortly before they have to decide whether to continue living in hiding or to reveal themselves, wings and all, to the outside world.

There are a few weak elements in the novel. The narrative becomes bogged down near the middle of the story, when the residents of the safe house try to elude a pair of suspicious reporters. Winter provides no explanation why most of the winged characters had absentee, neglectful, or abusive fathers. Some readers may also feel shortchanged when they find no explanation for why these particular people grew wings in the first place.

However, Winter's sensitive portrayal of the believable, sympathetic Linnet and her quest to discover her place in the world overshadow those weaknesses. With Growing Wings, Winter -- a successful short story writer and poet -- has written a promising first novel that will appeal to young readers who struggle with the twin desires of conforming to societal norms while embracing one's own uniqueness and individuality.


Book Cover Image In the picture book Wings (Scholastic Press), writer and illustrator Christopher Myers cleverly uses the myth of Icarus to examine societal intolerance and the all-too-common inability of people to recognize the beauty in diversity. The hero of this modern, urban version, Ikarus Jackson, is the new boy on the block who happens to sport a pair of large, strong wings. The initial reaction of both students and adults to his uniqueness is immediate and harsh:

"Our teacher complained that the other kids couldn't help but gawk and stare. He said that Ikarus's wings blocked the blackboard and made it hard for the students to pay attention.

"The teacher told Ikarus to leave class until he could figure out what to do with his wings. He left the room quietly, dragging his feathers behind him."

The message is clear: Ikarus's wings cause him to be seen as different, as an outsider, and being different is bad. Further, it is his own fault, not the fault of the students who "gawk and stare," that his presence disrupts the classroom, and it is therefore his responsibility to "figure out what to do with his wings."

Everywhere Ikarus flies he is reviled. When he tries to demonstrate the positive aspects of his flying abilities on the school playground, he is accused of being a show-off. As his spirits diminish, so does his flying. On the way home, it becomes a struggle for him to stay in the air. When he lands on top of a building, a police officer admonishes him to "Stay yourself on the ground. You'll get in trouble, you'll get hurt."

The unnamed narrator of this deceptively simple story is a young girl, herself the target of classmates' whispers because she is so quiet. She alone sees that Ikarus's wings are special, a kind of gift. She shyly observes his continual suffering, until she is moved to stand up against the neighborhood children for laughing at him. Then the quiet girl actually speaks to Ikarus:

"I called to Ikarus, and he sailed closer to me. I told him what someone should have long ago: 'Your flying is beautiful.'

"For the first time, I saw Ikarus smile. At that moment I forgot about the kids who had laughed at him and me. I was just glad that Ikarus had found his wings again."

Myers wastes no words in this spare, economical text, which is easy enough for even new readers; Myers's impressive illustrations add substance to the understated complexities in Wings. Each page practically shouts with cut-paper collages in a variety of colors, shapes, and lines. The young narrator is most often seen as a golden figure, standing apart from out the other somewhat drab characters. Most of the people are depicted in silhouette, with large, oversized eyes, like figures in prehistoric cave paintings.

When Ikarus first arrives in school, five silhouetted heads peer at him, craning from long necks originating from a single source, like the mythical many-headed Hydra of ancient Greek mythology. When Ikarus "shows off" on the playground, flying with a ball over the basketball court, the ground below him is brilliant gold; instead of his detractors, readers see many lit candles. In the original myth, Icarus's wings melted because he flew too high, too close to the heat of the sun. In Wings, Ikarus Jackson flies too close to the conforming crowd, whose scathing looks and jeers also threaten his ability to fly.

The mythic undertones, along with the somewhat primitive feel of the artwork, lend a sense of timelessness to the contemporary urban setting. In a classroom, Wings can be a wonderful catalyst to a discussion of how society often marginalizes those who are different, choosing, in diversity, to see impairment instead of giftedness.

Christopher Myers is a visual artist and an illustrator. His previous work includes illustrations for children's books by his father, the acclaimed author Walter Dean Myers.

The books highlighted this week are available in most bookstores. If you are unable to locate a book, ask your bookseller to order it for you or contact the publisher directly:

  • Growing Wings, written by Laurel Winter, is published by Houghton Mifflin Company, 222 Berkeley Street, Boston, MA 02116.
  • Wings, written and illustrated by Christopher Myers, is published by Scholastic Press, a division of Scholastic Inc. For additional information call 1-800-SCHOLASTIC.

Lauren Gattilia
Education World®
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