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by Lindsay Eagar

Pub Date: March 7th, 2023
ISBN: 978-0-7636-9235-3
Publisher: Candlewick

An 1880s traveling circus star wishes to be more than a monster on display.

Born with feathers, a beak, and solid black eyes, Avita is the apple of her father’s eye and his circus’s most profitable act, biting the heads off live chickens for crowds. The book’s opening lavishly sets the stage, including the circus’s garish delights—such as star stripper Luna, Avita’s beautiful, icy older sister, described as being “sex itself” even at 14 and working the “kootchie tent” since before her first period. Her brother—“born with dwarfism” but too many physical ailments to perform—is the circus’s brainy manager and their father’s punching bag. Avita’s first-person, past-tense narration vacillates wildly between being a true believer in her ringmaster father’s vision and a more jaded view; the end result is jarring. Other characters’ viewpoints include both the past and present tenses. Most interesting about Avita’s characterization is how she views her “hideous” face as a blessing even as she wishes people would look past it; less interesting is her leaning into self-objectification. Avita’s first crush kick-starts her quest to be seen as more than a monster as her family travels to a portentous city—and a showdown with their greatest rival. Surprisingly humanizing at heart is the unraveling family’s dynamic, set amid a coarse, exploitative environment run by a charismatic, tyrannical showman. Unfortunately, Avita’s eventual triumphant ending rings hollow and pat. Central characters are cued White; there is diversity in the supporting cast.

Intense but uneven.

(Fabulism. 17-adult)