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Contemporary Realistic Fiction, Fairy/Folk/Tall Tale, Middle Grade Readers, Read-Aloud Suggestions, Young Adult Readers

NIGHTINGALE’S NEST by Nikki Loftin

nightingale's nestNightingale’s Nest is not simply a story; it is an experience.  12-year-old John is going to work with his father this summer.  John’s little sister, Raelynn, died in a tree-climbing accident a year ago.  John’s family used all their available funds (including savings) to pay for Raelynn’s funeral and burial.  They have sold everything of value they own and are struggling now to pay rent each month.

As many surviving older siblings do, John feels guilty that he was not able to save his sister, ‘catch’ her as she fell from the oak tree.  His mother is so lost in her grief that on her worst days she speaks as if Raelynn is still alive.  His father is angry and frustrated, often using what little money he earns on beer instead of rent.  John has cut himself off from his best friend next door–desperately missing him but too embarrassed to admit they can’t alternate houses to watch baseball or play video games because they can no longer afford cable TV and have sold his gaming system.  John hopes that by helping his father at work he can contribute much needed funds and somehow begin to make up for Raelynn’s death and the disastrous state in which it has left his family.

While working with his father cutting trees in the yard of the wealthiest man in town John hears a voice, singing from the sycamore tree next door.  John is both mesmerized  by and concerned about Gayle from the moment he meets her.  She is small and he sees red marks he suspects are from Gayle’s foster mother and her son.  He feels a fierce need to protect her.

Mr. King is the owner of several Dollar Chain stores and is often called ‘The Emperor’ by the townspeople.  He has also heard Gayle sing in her tree next door.  He sees that John has a connection with the little girl and offers him $500 (which he knows John’s family needs) to convince Gayle to sing for him in his home recording studio so that he may have a recording of her voice to listen to.  John has an uneasy feeling about it, but reasons that it’s harmless, the money will help his family and he will stay with Gayle the whole time.

John makes a series of decisions many a 12-year-old would make in his position as he tries to help assuage his parents’ grief over Raelynn’s death, make them proud of him, help alleviate their financial struggles and protect Gayle at the same time.  Predictably, the consequences of these decisions spiral into a situation beyond John’s capacity to cope.  When, in the midst of anguishing over what to do about Gayle, his father’s drinking and his mother’s apparent loss of touch with reality John realizes that other people outside of his family are aware of both his parents’ behavior it is too much for him:

The knot grew bigger as anger started to balloon in my stomach.  I’d given up everything–even my best friend–to keep my family’s secrets.  And it turned out that maybe there hadn’t been a secret to keep.

Based on Hans Christensen Andersen’s The Nightingale, Nikki Loftin’s modern reinterpretation Nightingale’s Nest is both a brilliant tribute and an extraordinary story in its own right.  Both John and Gayle draw the reader into their stories.  as readers we, in turn, almost without realizing it, takes Gayle and John into our hearts.  And they will stay with there…even after we have finished reading Nightingale’s Nest.

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