“What if the story you think you know doesn’t end the way you think it does? What if magic really exists on this mountain and it’s looking for me?” asks 12-year-old Olive Miracle Martin, the main character and narrator of Hummingbird, Chattanooga writer Natalie Lloyd’s latest novel for children.
Olive is an open-hearted heroine, full of confidence and enthusiasm, who also knows pain and disappointment intimately. Olive suffers from a genetic disorder called osteogenesis imperfecta (OI), commonly called brittle bone disease. She has spent most of her life in casts and wheelchairs, but it is quickly evident to the reader that there’s more to her than her illness. As Olive puts it in one of her frequent poetic asides:
It’s strange how my bones are inside my body
but they’re still,
the first thing people see.
Fragile is what I’ll always be. I get that.
But I am
a thousand other things, too.
of wonders and weirdness
Olive lives in the fictional small mountain town of Wildwood, Tennessee, and when the story begins she is determined to convince her parents to let her leave homeschool for the more exciting life awaiting her at Macklemore Middle School. It’s been a year since her last broken bone, and Olive believes it’s time. Her parents’ desire to protect Olive, although understandable, has left her a bit isolated, with only a wild pelican named Felix and her sullen stepbrother Hatch for company. She knows she is meant for so much more.
Once she receives her parents’ permission, Olive is confident her life will instantly change for the better. There’s a lot to experience at Macklemore, including a school library that doubles as an aviary, a resident ghost, and unusual therapy animals for the students, including Edna the llama and a sloth named Bon Jovi. But when her opportunity finally arrives, Olive gets off to a shaky start with her classmates and worries that they may never see her as anything but different.
Luckily, she soon finds a friend, develops a crush, and is surprised to see her stepbrother in a new light. She even decides to audition for the part of poet Emily Dickinson in the fifth-grade play. But when mysterious, sparkly white feathers suddenly begin to fall — and instantly vanish — all over town, Olive’s favorite teacher, Mr. Watson, explains that this strange phenomenon has happened in Wildwood before. It presages the arrival of a magical hummingbird that appears on the night of the blue moon and grants wishes to those it deems deserving. Soon Olive is determined to find the hummingbird first and make her own wish — for bones that don’t break. Because, as Olive writes,
… In this world,
a girl needs bones made of concrete
a heart made of steel.
I’m twelve years old,
but I already know that’s true.
Lloyd’s characteristically whimsical style shines throughout this delightful yet poignant mashup of reality and fantasy, highlighting the heartbreak of the body’s physical limitations versus a soaring spirit and boundless imagination. And this time it’s personal since Lloyd also suffers from OI. The result is both completely enjoyable and incredibly moving, as we watch Olive grow and change by experiencing new relationships, facing her fears, and seeing the world from a fresh perspective.
Readers will enjoy Olive’s quirky exuberance: She coins words to describe her outsized feelings, such as “freak-cited” and “joy-kabooms,” and names her wheelchairs after country music stars. But at the heart of the story is Olive’s certainty that her dreams deserve to be as limitless as anyone else’s. “A disabled girl can be weird and fun and cool and make mistakes,” she declares. “She doesn’t have to be everybody’s shining inspiration. But she can fall in love and have adventures and just live her life. Especially if all she needs is a freaking ramp.”
Tina Chambers has worked as a technical editor at an engineering firm and as an editorial assistant at Peachtree Publishers, where she worked on books by Erskine Caldwell, Will Campbell, and Ferrol Sams, to name a few. She lives in Chattanooga.