Jacqueline Woodson’s young adult novel Feathers (2007) begins on January 6, 1971, in the sixth-grade classroom of an African-American school. The sixth-grade teacher, Ms. Johnson, has recently read her students the Emily Dickinson poem “Hope is the thing with feathers,” and the novel’s protagonist, Frannie, is struck by the poem’s message of hope “getting inside you and never stopping.” On January 6, however, an unusual event occurs in Frannie’s classroom: a white boy joins the class. He is pale, skinny, and tall, with long curly hair, and Frannie immediately notices the unusually thoughtful and perceptive expression on his face.

Some of the other sixth graders, however, are not so pleased with the new white boy’s presence. Trevor, the class bully, tells the boy that “pale-faces” do not belong in this school and he should get his “white butt” back on the other side of the highway—the highway being the unofficial dividing line between the white and black sections of Frannie’s town. The boy responds by saying Trevor is just as pale as he is and calling him “brother.” Frannie reveals that Trevor is in fact very light-skinned and blue-eyed, and according to local rumors, his father is white.

At lunch that day, Frannie, her best friend Samantha, and a stuck-up girl named Maribel Tanks discuss the new white boy. Maribel thinks the boy does not belong in their school, while Samantha says if he ended up here, this is where he should be. Frannie, meanwhile, watches the white boy sitting alone and feels sadness “creep up” on her.

When Trevor and a few other sixth-grade boys confront the white boy, he refuses to speak to them, and they ask if he is deaf and pretend to speak to him in sign language. He signs back, “No, I’m not deaf,” and Frannie understands him because her brother Sean is deaf and she speaks sign language with him. After signing, the boy looks over at Frannie as if he knows she is watching him. Then Trevor says the boy looks like Jesus and begins to call him “Jesus Boy.”

Soon after this incident, Trevor is absent from school for a few days because he tried to jump from a swing to a high fence, missed it, and broke his arm. Meanwhile, the white boy tells Ms. Johnson that he would like to go by the name Jesus—everyone calls him that, and he likes it. Another boy in their class, Rayray, protests, insisting that calling his classmate Jesus is wrong because Jesus was not human and he was not white—he was “spirit-colored,” as Rayray explains it. Rayray then adds that if the boy were really the son of God, he would probably go to a private school. As the conversation continues, Jesus starts crying. He tells the class that he used to live on the other side of the highway, but he did not feel he belonged there, and his father told him people would be nicer here.

After school that day, Samantha tells Frannie she suspects that “Jesus Boy” really is Jesus. Samantha points out that the Bible says, “Jesus wept,” just as Jesus Boy did that day, and she adds that just like Jesus Boy, the real Jesus wandered the earth, searching for a place where he would be accepted. While Frannie is respectful of Samantha’s opinion, Frannie herself cannot believe that Jesus Boy is the true son of God. As Frannie explains, their difference of opinion is rooted in their respective religious backgrounds: Samantha’s father is a preacher at One People Baptist, a “fire-and-brimstone” church where one is either holy and headed for heaven, or sentenced to burn in eternal hellfire, with no alternatives between these black-and-white absolutes. Frannie’s family, on the other hand, attends a more moderate church, and Frannie herself is not forced to accompany the family and often chooses not to go at all. As Frannie says, if other people need to believe Jesus literally existed as God’s son and walked the earth, she is not going to tell them they are right or...

(The entire section is 1612 words.)