Judith Heide Gilliland, Strange Birds (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2006)

Judith Heide Gilliland has previously written illustration-rich books for pre-K children (Not In The House, Newton, It's About Time!), as well as historical fiction for early readers (The House of Wisdom) with her mother, Florence Parry Heide. Strange Birds is a solo venture into fantasy, for 9 to 12 year olds, and is an interestingly layered story.

The surface plot is a fairly classic modern fairy-tale. On the eve of Anna Farrington's 11th birthday -- with a long-desired horse promised -- her parents vanish on a boat trip off the New England coast. Anna is devastated by her loss. Her world is further shattered by the arrival of her guardian: Aunt Formaldy, her father's sister, who ranks a high 8 on the Wicked Relative List. She is actually only interested in the Farrington's house, which is very old and potentially an Historical Landmark; to bereaved Anna, she starts out cold and goes on to active malice.

In short order, most of the familiar furnishings of Anna's home are thrown out and replaced with antiques, which Anna is forbidden to touch. She is evicted from her familiar bedroom and banished to a tiny garret half-hidden in the branches of the great tree that shelters the house. Aunt Formaldy gradually restricts Anna's freedom of movement through the house, until Anna is sneaking in and out of the kitchen so as to avoid her aunt's historical tours; after thoroughly cowing the child, Aunt Formaldy just ignores poor Anna, who is left to feed herself on what she can find in the pantry, keep her own clothes clean, and furtively wander between school and home on her own.

And here magic steps in; the tree that shades the Farrington home is enchanted. Ancient, enormous and of no known species, its wide branches hold whole rooms of comfort and delight hidden in their depths. Anna can step from her garret room window into a warm library of armchairs and cushions, and sip perfect cocoa as she reads her favorite books. She and her parents had shared this wonderful secret, and in the branches of the great tree she feels closer to them. As more and more of her home is plundered, she spends more and more time in the tree.

One night there is a ferocious storm. The tree weathers it easily, but in its wake Anna finds strange 'birds' blown into the branches by the wind. They are tiny horses, no more than 6 inches high, and they have wings. Lonely, grieving, horse-mad Anna is immediately in love with the miniature herd, and wins their devotion by saving a foal injured in the storm. From here the plot spirals into a lovely fantastic adventure, as Anna tries to solve the mysteries of the tree, the flying horses, and whether or not her parents can ever be found. She finds a friend who has been left in an isolation almost as cruel as Anna's by busy, travelling parents. Viillains are fought, puzzles are solved, dangers are dared, and of course there is a satisfying triumph of virtue.

One of the secrets that may be revealed in advance is that the little flying horses come from an islet perpetually hidden in fog, beyond the island of Chincoteague. And Chincoteague is well-known to any little girl who loves horses, as the home of Misty and the Chincoteague ponies -- a veritable Mecca of ponies, where the luckiest horse-crazy child might just manage to claim a pony of her very own. This is pretty much a girl's book, and if the girl in question liked Misty of Chincoteague, she is going to love this one as well.

But under this very pretty tale, Ms. Gilliland is also telling a colder, more modern story, one her young readers will also recognize. There are children like Anna: abandoned or orphaned, fending for themselves in a hard, lonely, dangerous world. Every child can tell when a classmate is struggling to brush her own hair, or make his own lunch, or who is always disheveled and hungry. Kids are aware of neglect -- they don't know what to do about it, but they are uneasily aware that it happens. There are no magic trees to shelter them in the real world, and no flying horses to bear them away to find better, loving guardians.

It's always been one of the functions of children's fantasy to pose such harsh possibilities in terms that kids can examine and explore without real fear. And it's comforting along the way if the endangered heroine has a safe place to curl up with a cup of cocoa. Strange Birds does this with extreme gentleness, so very gently that the less-perceptive young reader may miss the point. However, she won't miss the adventure and the charming details of the story, and every child who sees into the deeper structure of the plot will take that much more delight in a splendid little book.

[Kathleen Bartholomew]