I am delighted to be serving on the PNBA awards committee when Leslye Walton’s debut novel was nominated. Reading The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender feels like dreaming or being under a spell. A heartbroken woman turns into a canary, a kiss on the neck leaves a permanent mark that only slowly fades through the years, and a child is born with the wings of a bird. The rich texture and magical realism Walton employs balance out the real weight of the novel– its stark realism. In Ava Lavender, Walton explores the consequences of love and sex, and she bravely confronts sexual assault.
I believe Ava Lavender is a book our teens need. The YA genre is full of young heroines who are smart and humble and who face impossible odds and win love for their self-sacrifice and bravery. As appealing as this theme is, it is very unlikely that my daughter will lead a revolution or usurp an over-reaching government with her steely defiance. It is far more likely that she will someday need to pick herself up from awful disappointment. She will have her heart broken, love someone who does not love her back, or suffer terrible loss.
In Ava’s story, our kids can find something true to relate to. Ava is born with wings- something that isolates her. She has a complicated, messy family tree. Her forbears are not always wise and noble- they are often petty and selfish. Characters are vain and often make foolish mistakes. Perhaps the most important theme in Ava’s story is the unreliability of romantic love.
Love is not a prize you win after proving yourself. Love is not forever and it is often not pure. Love can be one-sided, twisted, and even dangerous. Despite the magical delivery, this message is very real. In Ava’s story, the characters must all face the fall-out of love in painful, ugly, and chaotic ways, just as we do in real life.
And this is why I adore Leslye Walton. I love her poetic sentences and beautiful, dreamlike delivery, but it is the painful truths she offers that impress me the most. Ava Lavender shows my daughter that she will not always succeed. She will be hurt by other people. She will make decisions she regrets. At some point she will likely throw her principles out the door at a moments notice. Ava learns to love that which makes her different. She learns that she can rise from the despair of a vicious trauma. This is an invaluable and under-represented message. Our children will suffer and they will feel shame but they can learn and they can move forward.
–Tina Ontiveros, bookseller at Klindt’s Booksellers in The Dalles, OR, PNBA Award Committee member
Members of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award Committee are sharing what they loved about the 2015 shortlist on nwbooklovers.org. For 2015 PNBA Award coverage, click here.