The unique genre of magical realism and the trendy yet heavy bullying issue will hook any reader to SWAN BOY by Nikki Sheehan. The opening scene of the book contains both of these elements as the new kid in school named Johnny is being picked on by another more popular kid at his school named Liam. Johnny somehow forms a connection with a nearby swan that begins to threaten Liam for picking on him. It is by far the most intriguing scene in the book and can open up the discussion about bullying among readers right away.
The rest of the plot continues with the bullying theme as the reader follows Johnny through a struggle to adapt to his new life after his father’s death which includes a new environment and being a primary caregiver for his younger brother. This is all made possible in a city setting where Johnny has everything at his fingertips, including public transportation to assist him with taking care of his brother. His younger brother uses drawing as a coping mechanism and as a twist, Johnny seems to find his biggest coping mechanism by dancing in a school production of Swan Lake, which he and the other students, including his bully Liam, were assigned to perform as punishment after an incident in the library.
Having a young boy find himself through ballet dancing is one of this book's most winningly unique and refreshing aspects. When Johnny embraces a hobby that goes against traditional gender roles which young males are often teased for it adds an element of superiority to SWAN BOY that other books lack.
Many young readers will be able to relate to the relationship Johnny has with his mother and his brother during their family’s time of stress as their lives were unexpectedly altered. As the older sibling and sudden “man of the house,” Johnny feels pressure from his mother and feels guilt as he is somewhat annoyed by his little brother, but each family member reveals new things about the family’s history throughout the story.
Johnny also manages to make some friends and meet other likeable characters throughout the novel. He meets a boy named Sam who has struggled with Liam’s bullying at school even without being the new kid and the teacher in charge of the ballet takes a strong liking to him and does her best to guide Johnny in the right direction. All of these characters, including Liam the bully, prove themselves to be interesting and will surprise the reader in the end.
The magical element includes mysterious scenes where Johnny continues to have a strange connection with wild swans. Johnny’s problems increase as on top of everything he starts to physically transform into a swan. He first notices when a streak of his hair turns white and then he soon starts to sprout feathers on his chest. Despite efforts to shave the feathers, they always grow back and are too tough to remove.
The ending is open ended and the magical element of the book is never fully explained or discussed with other characters in the book. It demonstrated the magic at its fullest and could be interpreted as open-ended or the meaning of the Johnny’s magical connection with Swan’s would make another great discussion point among readers. However, it may leave other readers wanting more and a better explanation of how to interpret the events. At times the writing in this book can also be heavy with detail making it a slower read.
Despite any shortcomings SWAN BOY will leave many readers in awe and will allow people to empathize more with others and the struggles they may be facing.
Reviewed by Angela Warsinke on December 14, 2016