In Erin Entrada Kelly’s debut novel, Apple Yengko is a typical American adolescent. Except that she is Filipino. And she is ranked number three on the mean boys’ Dog Log, a hypothetical list of the ten ugliest girls at Chapel Spring Middle School.
Apple and her mother moved to Louisiana from the Philippines when Apple was four years old. All she brought with her was a postcard and a cassette tape of the Beatle’s Abbey Road album, which had belonged to her father, who died of a brain aneurysm before they immigrated. Apple loves the Beatles. Her favorite song is Blackbird Fly and her favorite Beatle is George Harrison.
Once you listen to the Beatles, you can’t go back. They’re the best rock band that’s ever lived, in my opinion.
Apple longs to get a guitar and learn to play so she, too, can be a rock star. But her mother refuses to buy her a one.
Apple is friends with Alyssa and Gretchen and the three of them always got along well. But now they are in middle school, and her friends have changed. All they care about is boys and being popular. Like most middle school children who strive to such status, Alyssa and Gretchen follow the social mandate that says one must shun, ridicule, and otherwise torment other students who seem different or weird. At Chapel Spring Middle School, one such student is Heleena; quiet, shy, and overweight. The other kids call her Big-leena. In her heart, Apple knows it’s not right. But she doesn’t want to alienate Alyssa, who seems poised to climb the social ladder.
One day, a new kid named Evan Temple shows up at Chapel Spring. He, too, is different. But Apple is drawn to him. Unlike most of the other kids, Evan doesn’t care what people think about him. And he’s not afraid to stand up to the bullies.
Through a series of embarrassing events, Apple comes to realize that her friends, especially Alyssa and the creepy boys she adores, are jerks.
Sometimes it feels like the Beatles are the soundtrack to my life. Sometimes it feels like music is the only thing that saves me, especially in moments like this, when my so-called best friend is ready to tell me how ugly I am.
She becomes good friends with Evan and Heleena, and through them she discovers what true friendship means. A music teacher also befriends her, loans her a guitar, and gives her lessons at lunch time. Not surprisingly, Apple has a natural talent.
Throughout the story, like many real-life middle-schoolers, Apple struggles with her identity and self-esteem. She is ashamed of her Filipino heritage and the nickname she was given at birth. She hates her dark slanted eyes, her straight black hair, and her thin figure. Apple has a habit of labeling everyone by “three IFs” (interesting facts). Evan and Heleena help Apple discover the value of her uniqueness and her own self-worth. By the end of the story, Apple lists her own three IFs like this: I was born on an island in the Philippines. I can play any Beatles song on the guitar. My name is Apple.
Blackbird Fly beautifully illustrates multi-cultural diversity and the importance of acceptance. The story is fictional, but Kelly’s portrayal of a young girl who immigrated to American with her mother loosely parallels the author’s own life. Kelly is a Filipina-American who was raised in south Louisiana by a mother who was the first in her family to immigrate from the Philippines to the United States. Kelly also realistically depicts life in middle school. Kids that age want to fit in and be accepted. They care about what other people think about them; about who’s “popular” and who isn’t. They want to have friends, but they often don’t know how to be a good friend. Loyalties can be fickle, at best. And adolescents can be relentlessly cruel in their own quest to be noticed and accepted. All that angst, as well as an uplifting positive ending, comes to life in Blackbird Fly.
This book releases March 24 and has already garnered much attention. Blackbird Fly was chosen as a Junior Library Guild Selection for 2015. The Southern Independent Booksellers Association listed it with their OkraPicks: Best Books of the South. And it has starred reviews from the School Library Journal and Kirkus Book Reviews. Highly recommended for middle grade readers.