Nikki Loftin’s Nightingale’s Nest Sings

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Nikki Loftin is a gifted storyteller. Her sophomore middle-grade fantasy, Nightingale’s Nest, (2014, Razor Bill) proves that.

At last month’s Austin SCBWI Working Conference I was fortunate enough to attend Sarah Ketchersid’s (Executive Editor, Candlewick Press) seminar on the importance of raising the stakes for your novel’s hero. Not surprisingly, Nikki was there too.

It got me thinking that I’d love it if she led her own class, maybe “Techniques for Torturing Your Hero in Entertaining and Compelling Ways?” Whatever she called it, I would definitely attend.

That’s because Loftin intertwines her plots so masterfully with her hero’s desires. No matter how hard Little John tries to do the right thing, his choices just keep making things worse. Nightingale’s Nest is at times heartbreaking and disturbing, but it kept me turning the page to learn if the preteen protagonist would ever catch a break.

In addition to her gripping plot, Loftin’s reinterpretation of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Nightingale” deftly creates a setting and backstory that firmly establish Little John as sympathetic and oh so damaged – again all of the hero’s problems are tangled up in choices he did and didn’t make before the time period of the book. Then she unwinds a chain of events which genuinely and believably threaten to crush him, along with pretty much everyone he loves.

Which brings me to the story’s other main character Gayle, the strange little orphan who escapes her abusive foster home by living in a tree and singing. Gayle has magic in the same way Loftin’s entire book has magic. It’s just part of her, it’s not explained or justified. Magic is simply something the world ofNightingale’s Nest possesses in casual abundance.

I strive to create that kind of … I don’t know, magicality in my own fiction. Sorry to make up a word, but ‘magical realism’ and ‘fantasy’ don’t really fit what Loftin creates. Her book’s world is very recognizable; the people are just regular folks with familiar, if dire, problems. The setting of Nest has everything a typical suburban/urban preteen would find familiar. Except Gayle. It’s obvious from the first sentence of the book that she’s special, a catalyst. Loftin even goes so far as to call the little girl’s music “magic” in the opening paragraph. And that’s how the author treats the supernatural throughout the rest of the book: it’s matter of fact, no big deal. Just another branch for the reader to hold onto to as he climbs.

Nikki Loftin’s skill with plot and world building are enviable and make for a tightly paced and compelling read. And her characters intrigued me and demanded my sympathy in all the right ways. In short, Nightingale’s Nest lived up to the expectation created by her debut, The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy. I can’t wait to see what kind of world she crafts next.