Julianne Negri, The Secret Library of Hummingbird House, Affirm Press, June 2020, 272 pp., RRP $16.99 (pbk), ISBN 9781925870497
Hattie Maxwell is troubled. Her life since the Big Split has been chaotic and her little sister, Ivy doesn’t make anything easier. The Big Split started when Hattie’s mum and dad decided to live in separate houses. They were arguing a lot, so it seemed the best idea – at least, for the adults. For Hattie and Ivy, it means that every week they pack up their things and move houses – one week to their dad’s place then the next at their mum’s, then back to their dad’s. While the girls love having time with both their parents, Hattie always seems to be without something she needs for that particular week which is always at the other parent’s home. With her mum and dad not talking to each other, this makes life almost impossible.
Amidst the angst of the Big Split, Hattie finds out that Hummingbird House and its wondrous Mulberry Tree are to be demolished to make way for an apartment development. Hummingbird House holds very special memories for Hattie; happy family time, tree climbing, lolly eating and laughter. Through some quirky time travel, Hattie revisits the old house after a lengthy absence to discover it has a ghostly occupant who she befriends and who leads her to a secret library; and eventually to hidden treasure. With renewed vigour, Hattie is determined to investigate exactly what is being planned for the site and put the town in motion toward the preservation and heritage of her beloved Hummingbird House.
The Secret Library of Hummingbird House has two story themes running through it. Firstly, the complexities that arise for an eleven-year-old girl experiencing unexpected change and subsequent isolation. The division in Hattie’s family, the presence of her attention-seeking younger sister who gets away with everything, and Hattie’s inability to express her worries convince her that no-one is listening. Maybe no-one cares.
While I found the constant references to the Big Split somewhat overstated, The Secret Library of Hummingbird House is equally about the joy of books, the solid wealth of knowledge that is a library and a passion for the wondrousness of words that provide a haven in which to hide or retire – just for a while. Hattie finds welcome respite from the instability of her world in stories and, perhaps it is these stories that eventually become the catalyst for the courage and resilience she finds to ‘right a wrong’ – to stand up and be counted – and to be heard.
The particular cleverness in this book is the way Negri has introduced such a vast vocabulary of words – new words to replace ordinary words – that somehow make us sit up and pay attention. Carefully and delightfully disguised as part of the school curriculum’s Dictionary Word of the Week, this inventive approach unexpectedly introduces a vast range words and a delight for language in all its complexities and craziness.
The Secret Library of Hummingbird House is about gaining acceptance of those things that are not perfect in life, speaking out for what we believe in to create positive change and just getting on with it. Quite flippercanorious (brilliant).
Reviewed by Jennifer Mors