Ava Lavender was born with a pair of wings. Her twin brother, Henry, rarely speaks and hates to be touched. In the rainy Seattle spring of 1944, these two siblings become the newest members of a family already known for its mysterious powers: Their grandmother can smell feelings and bake them into bread; their great-aunt once turned herself into a canary to attract the attention of her ornithologist beau; and their murdered great-uncle haunts his family in the hopes of delivering an important message.
Using detailed imagery and an almost mythical storytelling style, teenage Ava tells the history of four generations of her family. Readers learn of Ava’s great-grandparents’ emigration to the American city of “Manhatine,” of her grandparents’ acquisition of a house believed to be haunted by a frail and peculiar child, and of the various loves that her mother and grandmother have found, lost, guarded against, found again and then lost again over the years. Ava’s narration connects these past events to her current struggles to live a normal teenage life despite the huge and mostly useless wings that set her apart from her peers. A final, violent event brings together ghostly warnings, Henry’s unsuspected talents and the darkly twisted effect that Ava’s angelic appearance has on those around her.
Teens picking up The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender in hopes of a similar read to Amelia Atwater-Rhodes’ Hawksong or Patrice Kindl’s Owl in Love may have to adjust their expectations; author Leslye Walton’s debut novel is less of an adventure story about a winged girl and more of an atmospheric, poetic work of multigenerational history and magical realism. However, those willing to enter Ava’s world on its own terms will find themselves richly rewarded.
Jill Ratzan reviews for School Library Journal and works as a school librarian at a small independent school in New Jersey. She learned most of what she knows about YA literature from her terrific graduate students.