Shota has to find his sister, Azuki, who took off after their parents were killed by the local sheriff in a fit of greed and rage. Shota believes that she’s probably headed north to be where the crested ibis, or toki, are. He and Azuki are bird children; he’s a sparrow who can take on the form of a human boy, and she’s a toki who can appear as a girl. Years ago, their hometown’s protective spirits, the Jizo, brought them to their human parents, who had longed for children of their own and had shown the Jizo kindness and respect. But now their parents are gone, and Shota and Azuki are on their own, flying, walking, sailing and riding across the islands of Japan, relying on their wits and the gods’ protection. Shota knows that they must return to their home before the equinox or they will be declared dead by the sheriff, struck from the books and unable to live among humans any longer. As they travel, they come to appreciate their dual natures and decide that they would never want to live as just humans or just birds. Meanwhile, Japan itself struggles with a new duality in the Meiji era, as foreign influences creep into the previously closed country. Youmans pursues this theme in a parallel plot about an innocent love affair between Anko, a young Japanese woman, and Benjamin, a young American man who’s come to prospect for coal. Shota and Azuki’s epic journey is a great read, and it simply flies along. By contrast, however, Anko and Benjamin’s story plods, weighed down with exposition that may be unclear to younger readers. When the four main characters meet up at the very end, readers may find that it feels pat and rather incidental. Interestingly, however, Youmans starts every chapter with a black-and-white drawing by a different young person—all of whom have their own takes on what a bird-child might look like.
An uneven but often engaging fairy tale with two strong young characters.