This YA Novel About Grief & Immigration Is A Call For Empathy — & You Can Start Reading Now
Acclaimed young adult author Marie Marquardt is known for creating works of emotional fiction that truly resonate with her readers, whether they are teens or adults. In her upcoming novel Flight Season, out from Wednesday Books/St. Martin's Press in February, Marquardt has crafted her most personal and relatable story yet, and Bustle has an exclusive excerpt of the highly anticipated book below.
Vivi Flannigan is barely holding it together. She is still mourning the loss of her beloved father, she is in danger of failing college, and to top it all off, she has developed an uncontrollable obsession for birds that seems to follow her wherever she goes. Determined to turn things around and live out her father's dreams for her success, Vivi secures a hospital internship that could very well save her from losing her spot at Yale — that is, if she can survive the whole summer stuck with a hostile nursing student and a pain-in-the-butt patient. As she struggles to put the pieces of her life back together, Vivi's relationship with TJ, a nursing student desperate to get out from under the responsibilities of his family's Brazilian restaurant business, and Ángel, an undocumented orphan and the fussy heart patient they're both assigned to care for, begins to change her life in ways she could never have imagined.
A riveting story about love, empathy, and belonging, Flight Season is a timely book that tackles one of the biggest issues in America today: immigration and the status of undocumented young adults. Illustrated by Emily Arthur, a studio artist and professor of printmaking at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the beautiful book is peppered with sixteen simple but stunning sketches and handwritten notes about various bird breeds and their behaviors.
The author of two previously acclaimed young adult novels, Dream Things and The Radius of Us, Marie Marquardt is a professor at Emory University and an immigration rights advocate. In Flight Season, she draws draws from her own professional experiences working with immigrant teens and her personal experience with mourning the loss of her father while a young student to create an emotionally compelling story about loss, survival, and finding the way home.
"Flight Season is a tribute to the strength and fortitude many teenagers I have come to know and love, who face all sorts of adversity with a maturity and inner strength that adults often fail to recognize," says Marquardt of her book. "It's also an act of resistance to the social norms that tell us certain things (like an Ivy League degree) matter most, when — really — they aren't nearly as important as those intangibles of love and friendship and human flourishing."
If you're tearing up at the sight Marquardt's comments, just wait until you read her heartwarming book. It isn't out until February from Wednesday Books/St. Martin's Press, but you can start reading Flight Season right now with an exclusive excerpt for Bustle readers. See the first chapter of Marquardt's emotional YA novel below:
Chapter 1: Vivi
BIRD JOURNAL May 29, 12:37 p.m.
Grasshopper sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum)
What is this little guy doing at a South Carolina rest stop? Is one of nature’s best navigators lost?
Social Behavior: typically not in flocks, can be very
secretive, but often perch atop shrubs to sing.
Call: double or triple ticking note, followed by long insect- like buzz.
Habitat: migrating bird, found during breeding season in much of the northern and midwestern United States. Winters in Mexico and the coastal southeastern US.
It’s a migratory bird, and it should be LONG GONE!
Lately, I've developed a fascination with birds. It started in December, when a lovely little songbird perched above me in the branch of an enormous oak tree and refused to shut up. At the time, all I knew was that it was small and loud and incredibly persistent.
Now I know it was an American robin.
Birders give every bird’s song a phrase, which is supposed to mirror the rhythm and tone of their sound. One of my favorite common birds, the barred owl, sings out in a low tenor, Who cooks for you? But the American robin doesn’t ask questions. Instead it incessantly commands: Cheerily, cheer up, cheer up, cheerily, cheer up! Which is an especially frustrating thing to hear when you’re sitting at an outdoor funeral in the blinding light of a Florida winter, trying to pay attention to the eulogy.
I don’t remember much from that day, except for how bright blue the sky was, set against all of those dark suits, and how many people had crammed into my backyard—hundreds of mourners pressed against the edge of the still lake. And I remember hearing fragments of a traditional hymn, because everyone around me was singing about “awesome wonder” and “the greatness of God,” while I was entertaining such not-so-awesome thoughts as: I wonder where the ashes are and When will all of these people leave us alone?
I stayed outside and sat in the shadow of that sprawling oak tree. I stared up at the Spanish moss, gray and dripping from every branch, waiting to feel something. Anything.
And that robin? He stuck around and kept me company. He sang to me, high and clear, until all the guests had gone back to their not- torn-through-with-grief lives (probably feeling quite anxious to cheerily cheer up!).
After that, I started to pay attention to birds, which wasn’t terribly difficult. As it turns out, they were paying a whole lot of attention to me.
Take this little sparrow: I’m on my way home after having (barely) survived my first year of college, and I’m not even remotely surprised when I pull into the parking lot of a run-down gas station, only to encounter him watching me with beady black eyes. He’s perched on a rusted-out handicapped parking sign, staring right at me.
I think he’s a grasshopper sparrow, or maybe a Savannah sparrow. Either way, this little guy should already be at his summer home in Maine, or maybe hopping around the grasslands of the Great Plains, plucking up insects. He doesn’t belong in the swamplands of rural South Carolina—not with summer fast approaching.
This poor bird has lost its bearings.
His stout neck flicks from side to side and he lets out a loud call: a triple ticking note followed by a long humming buzz.
His insect-like call gives it away. He definitely is a grasshopper sparrow, which means he definitely is lost.
Unless, of course, he stuck around to wait for me.
These birds may have pea-sized brains, but they are not dumb. They’re incredible. They can make their way across continents with nothing but their own good sense. One time, a group of scientists packed up a few dozen sparrows in Washington State, took them on a plane to Princeton, New Jersey, and set them free. Within a couple of hours, they all were heading straight for their wintering grounds in Mexico.
What kind of sparrows were those? White-crowned?
I pull out my phone to do a quick search, but I’m distracted by a string of incoming texts.
The first few are from my roommate, Gillian. From the fragments I can see, it appears that she’s reached Chicago, the first stop on our epic summer music road trip. We planned it together, and then I abandoned her before it even started.
Since I’m currently at a rest stop in the middle of nowhere, on my way home to repair last semester’s epic mistakes, I can’t muster the energy to look at her texts.
I scroll down to the next one, from my mom:
I’m thinking maybe a little change of plans. . . . Call me!
I watch the screen, forcing myself to take slow breaths, wondering if she’ll tell me more. Nothing. When I look up, the sparrow has hopped over to perch on a metal pole beside a convenience store’s entrance, like he’s urging me to go in.
Maybe that bird is right. Maybe I should head in and get something to eat before I make this call—Twizzlers to gnaw on. They always calm my nerves.
I close my bird journal and put it in the passenger seat. I rest the binoculars on top and get out of the car. The door jangles as I go inside.
“Need somethin’?” a man behind the counter asks. “Twizzlers?”
“Last aisle, on the right.”
I walk along the gray linoleum floor, following the almost-white path made by hundreds of feet shuffling toward the candy.
“Look up,” the man says. “See ’em there?”
I look up, but I don’t see them. I’m squinting, scanning the brightly colored candies crammed onto metal shelves. I’m having trouble pay- ing attention, because even through the thick plate glass, I hear that little sparrow’s song.
Tick-tick-tick-buzzzzzzzzzzzz. Tick-tick-tick-buzzzzzzzzzzzz. Tick-tick- tick-buzzzzzzzzzzzz.
The convenience store clerk comes out from behind the counter with, of all things, a baby strapped to his back—and a handgun attached to his belt.
He reaches beyond me and then hands me a king-sized bag of Twizzlers.
“Here you are, miss.” He glances out the window at my car. “I guess you won’t be needing gas.”
My car’s electric. It’s also beautiful and sleek and near perfect. I know that teenagers shouldn’t drive a car like this. I get it. So the amused tone in his voice and the way he looks back at me and gives me a quick once-over—they don’t bother me. I understand where he’s coming from.
And I can’t exactly explain to this man, this kind stranger with a baby on his back and a gun in his belt loop, how much this car means to me—how much more it is for me than a status symbol for the environmentally conscious. Because, here’s the thing about my car: no matter how bad things get, I can still climb in and press the start button. I can gently bring the engine to life, and I can remember the moment I got it—a moment filled with the bright possibility of a beautiful future. I’m clinging to that future, grasping for it, but I feel it slipping out of my reach, darting away with nervous, erratic, unpredictable jolts. It’s like I’m trying to hold on to a hummingbird.
“Never seen one of those in person,” the clerk says. “How far can you go without charging it?”
“Three hundred and fifty miles or so. It’s amazing.” I know I’m gushing, but I love that car with all my heart.
“And what do you do out here on the road when you need to charge it?”
“I have an app. It tells me where I can stop to charge.” “An app?” he asks, his eyebrows arching.
“Well, you know what they say.” I shrug. “There’s an app for everything these days.”
He nods and pinches his lower lip, like he’s thinking, but he doesn’t ask anything more.
I’m tempted to tell him about the amazing birding apps I have on my phone—one of them can actually identify any North American bird from a photograph and a GPS locator. But he’ll probably think I’m a basket case.
Down here on the ground, we barely ever give these feathered wonders a moment’s notice, even though they have been on Earth for eons longer than we have. Most people don’t know that birds are dinosaurs’ closest descendants. They will, no doubt, outlast us all, and that’s probably for the best.
Most people find my bird obsession weird. I get it. Six months ago, if someone had suggested to me that I’d be pulling over to the side of the road on a regular basis to strap a pair of binoculars around my neck and grab a journal from the glove compartment, or if someone had explained to me that I would sketch furiously while struggling to detect the subtle differences between two sparrows, or that I would know to focus my attention on the trill of their song and the hue of their underbellies, I would have said they were insane.
But the truth is this: I only started paying close attention to birds because they started paying attention to me.
I could offer any number of examples from the past six months. The horned owl that followed me home as I ran away from a dorm party where a junior I’d never met before cornered me and started to grope. The common raven that dive-bombed me several times as I attempted to enter the lecture hall where I was supposed to take an English exam covering a broad range of Canadian novels on the theme of refuge—most of which I had not managed to read.
And this one, from a couple of weeks ago: I was studying for exams, utterly sleep-deprived and subsisting on Twizzlers and Monster Energy drinks. During exams, space in the library is incredibly hard to come by, and I was feeling proud that I had managed to find a private desk by the window in the Southeast Asia Reading Room.
Yale’s library is an astounding building—it looks more like a cathedral than a place to store books. In fact, when I first got to campus last fall, the space felt a bit overwhelming. It seemed almost too quintessentially Ivy League to be real. But any library with the motto a library is a summons to scholarship carved on the walkway was exactly the place I needed to be that week. Up until that point, my second semester at Yale had been significantly lacking in scholarship, and I had three short reading days to make up for lost time.
I was camped out at a desk by the window, cramming the stabil- ity patterns of reactive intermediates into my exhausted brain. A small yellow bird came tapping on one of the windowpanes with its beak—so hard that I was sure it would shatter the leaded glass. And then the bird perched on a branch and started to call out.
That bird was an American goldfinch. Its call? Po-ta-to-chip, po- ta-to-chip. After enduring several minutes of unrelenting song, I finally gave up, slammed my textbook shut, and took the stairs down to the library’s exit. Dazed, I emerged onto Rose Walk and into the sunlight. I followed the scent of buttered toast to the Cheese Truck and ordered the daily special, a grilled Caseus cheese with farm-fresh spinach, with potato chips on the side. I let my eyes fall shut and slowly breathed in the most comforting aromas of all time. Then I carried those chips and grilled cheese on sourdough to my favorite bench in a shady corner of Calhoun courtyard and devoured them.
It was one of the best sandwiches I have ever eaten. The chips were fabulous, too, with the perfect amount of salt and a satisfying crunch. I’m almost certain that I tanked the exam. Remembering all those stability patterns was probably a lost cause from the start, but I’ll never forget that perfect grilled cheese—and the goldfinch that made me stop to eat it.
I hang around in the candy aisle for another minute or two, pretending to study the shelves. I peer over a tower of chewing gum. The clerk is shifting his gun holster to transfer the sleeping baby into a Pack ’n Play. It’s set up under the counter, behind the cigarette display. I don’t want to interrupt him, so I wait until after the baby is settled to pay.
Standing there, desperate to kill time so that I won’t have to make that call to my mom, I consider asking if he brings his baby to work every day. But then I worry that there’s some tragic story behind it all—like maybe his wife left him for his brother, or she died in a terrible interstate accident involving an eighteen-wheeler. Maybe he was in the car too. Maybe it was his fault, and the agony of having killed his wife is almost too much for him to bear.
God, what is wrong with me? Not everybody’s life has to be in shambles.
I decide that’s enough death and destruction for today. His wife
probably went to visit her mom in Beaufort or something. Or maybe she’s at home, right around the corner, making tuna sandwiches for lunch. Maybe he just likes hanging out with his little girl at work— a way to pass the time.
My phone rings. Mom.
I say a quick thanks and head toward the door. “Hi, Mom. I was just about to call.”
I swing the door of the convenience store open, and a blast of sweltering hot air hits me at the same time as her voice.
“Good news, Viv!”
For as long as I can remember, my mom’s voice has served as a precise barometer of her mood. With only a few words, I can tell how she’s faring. It’s hard to admit, but I’ve come to dread our phone calls. Because, when she’s sounding bereft, and I’m several states away, doing everything I can to hold it together enough to keep from failing out of school, I have no idea how to talk to her.
But today she sounds good. Great, actually.
“My friend Anita is going to North Carolina for the summer. She’s giving pottery workshops at an artist colony near Celo—”
I’m not sure how any of this is relevant to Mom and me. But I think I know what she wants me to say, so I say it. I interject with an enthusiastic “And?”
“She’s decided to focus the workshop around roots, trees, leaves, and branches. . . .”
My voice rises. “And?”
“Oh, well, I just thought you should know. . . .”
It’s a game we used to play when Dad came home from a day in court with another wild idea. He would burst into the kitchen, announcing a string of facts that appeared in no way relevant to our lives.
Did you two know that Bhutan has extraordinary biodiversity? And an incredibly diverse range of climates. . . .
The takin is Bhutan’s national animal, but most people travel there to get a sighting of the Bengal tiger or the clouded leopard. . . .
Oh, and there are some fabulous Buddhist monasteries there. I mean, if you’re into that kind of thing. . . .
I was just driving home from work and thinking about how you two might not know a whole lot about Bhutan, and perhaps you should. . . .
And I’ve booked a trip. Vivi’s spring break. How does that sound to y’all?
So, even though it hurts, physically, to play this game with my mother, and a hole is opening up in my chest, I squeeze my eyes shut and make myself do it.
“And she’s offered us her beach cottage.”
I lean against the wall and rip open the bag of Twizzlers.
“It’s so adorable. Just a few houses from the ocean. You’re going to love it.”
I start gnawing on a Twizzler, watching the sparrow hop to the pavement and begin a little jig.
“Uh, that sounds like a great adventure, Mom.”
I say it because that’s how the game always ended. But what I really want to say is: Can I please just come home?