This book by Claire Youmans reads like a fable or folk story from Japan. It is the first book in a box set of three that is targeted for readers eight-years of age and older. The main characters are two children, Azuki and Shota, who have the ability to change from birds into humans and back again as their hearts’ desire.
The book starts off with a lesson in kindness that leads to good fortune. Chizuyo and her husband, Hachibei, have no children, and desperately want a family. It is through their good deeds, the blessings of the Japanese Jizo statues, and typical fairy tale magic that they come into guardianship of Azuki and Shota. The family of four is happy and content, until an evil sheriff decides he wants custody of Azuki. It is from there that the story takes off and forces Azuki and Shota away from all that they know and hold important in life.
It is an unwanted and long journey for the two bird-children as they flee their homes. They are separate from each other during the long voyage, and each takes a different route during the course of examining who they really want to be in life. Acceptance of one’s self is common theme by the author.
The side characters in this story include a kind monk, a helpful sailor, a war horse, a dragon-girl, an ogre, and many different birds and animals that have the ability to speak with Azuki and Shori. All of these fun role players make for good characters, that will hopefully reappear in books #2 and #3.
An earlier era of Japan is the setting for this story. The background details regarding the country and its culture, made the tale more interesting, and added a bit more realism to the fantasy plot that takes center stage.
While the book is advertised as being a good fit for eight-year-olds, it seems it would read clearer to kids around the age of ten or eleven, especially if they are reading it on their own. The dark parts are not too bad, but the story has a lot of bigger and older words that could be difficult for young readers to quickly define.
The book does have many interesting talking points, and would probably make for a good read by a teacher to students as young as eight-years-old. It would be an excellent book for group discussions within an elementary school classroom. Third graders and older could have a lot of educational talks dissecting the morals within this book, as well as the introductions of different Western influences on Japan.