Erin Entrada Kelly’s debut middle grade novel follows Filipina-American music lover Analyn––aka Apple––as she deals with the ins and outs of middle school social life. Her year gets off to a bad start: she’s on the Dog Log, the list of the ugliest girls in school, and one of her closest friends has begun to treat her like a social liability.
Blackbird Fly does a great job of portraying that middle school agony of feeling different, when all you want is to fit in.
Here are three things we can learn from Kelly’s lovely debut.
1. It’s rough out there!
The Dog Log sounded really brutal to my adult brain. For just a flicker of a split second, I wondered if these kids were a little too mean to be realistic.
But then I remembered 5th, 6th, 7th grade. And…yep. Kelly has it spot-on.
This novel brought me straight back to middle school, where friends are the most important thing in your life––and can also cause you the most pain, right when you’re still discovering who you are.
Kids’ lives are tough. And life’s even tougher for a kid who feels like an outsider, who feels like she doesn’t quite fit in at school or at home. Watching Apple navigate the harshly hierarchical world of her middle school is a little heartbreaking at times. But it’s also spot-on, and those difficulties make it that much sweeter when Apple finally begins to figure out who she is.
2. Don’t be afraid to let your protagonist be unlikeable.
Apple’s not always nice. She plays along with the mean girls for a while, and she’s especially harsh on her mom. We see how Apple sees her Philippines-apron-wearing, accented-English-speaking mom––and it’s not exactly pretty. It’s easy to get frustrated with Apple, at times: why can’t she just embrace the things that make her and her mom different?
In the best of circumstances, kids this age get a jolt when they realize their parents aren’t perfect. In Apple’s case, the effect is exaggerated. Her mom represents everything that makes her different from her peers––everything, she believes, that got her on the Dog Log, everything that’s keeping her out of that top tier of popular kids.
Apple isn’t perfect, but she feels real. And because of this, Kelly gets us rooting for Apple: we can see ourselves in her, the good and the bad. We’re really hoping she’ll find her way in the end.
3. What makes your character special?
Apple loves the Beatles. Cool! (I wish I’d been this cool at that age.)
Apple’s obsession with the Beatles isn’t your average MG heroine feature. But it’s not just thrown in there for the quirk factor. Music––especially the Beatles’ tunes––becomes a huge part of Apple’s identity as she searches out who she is, and how she’s different, both from her family and from her peers.
Music also connects Apple to her family, and this connection shifts and evolves as the story moves along. It’s a key part of Apple’s character, and adds another layer to Blackbird Fly that makes it an even more rewarding story. It also inspired me to rock out to some Beatles tunes when I finished reading––an added bonus of a very satisfying book!
Want to chat more about Blackbird Fly? Find me on Twitter @beckererine.