I think you all know by now that I love dragons, but another thing I loved growing up was the idea of flying or having the ability to fly—maybe as a result of watching too many Ghibli movies as a kid. I knew it wasn’t possible, but I wanted to have wings and get to school by flapping through the air like an overgrown bird. Since I couldn’t do that, though, I did the next best thing and went out and devoured all the books I could find with winged people. One of these books was the 2000 novel Growing Wings.
Growing Wings is a little weird in that it’s more of a concept rather than an unforgettable book—in fact, when on a recent trawl for wingfic-themed books, I read a summary of this book, thought it sounded interesting, bought a used copy, and then unwrapped it only to discover that I had 1) already read the book and 2) already had a copy of the book. That’s how concept-y it is—what little plot there is is not exactly memorable. However, the concept is extremely compelling.
Our protagonist, eleven-year-old Linnet McKenzie, wakes up one day to an itchy back and is soon told that wings are sprouting from her shoulder blades. Though at first she’s excited by the idea of having wings, she slowly comes to realize that wings, which run in her family, haven’t always been a source of joy. Her mother, Sarah, had her wings cut off by her own mother, who had in turn had her wings cut off by her mother before her. Thus, they’re both what’s known as cutwings. Long ago, Sarah ran away from her mother and vowed not to cut off her future children’s wings, but now that Linnet’s wings have come along, neither of them have any idea what to do. Her wings are growing too rapidly to be confined to a baggy sweatshirt for long, and soon she might not be able to go out safely at all. When school lets out, the two of them take a long drive through America and end up in rural Montana, where Linnet finds a secret house full of winged people like herself and cutwings like her mother. But now that she’s found them, how can they help? And will her wings ever grow big enough to let her fly?
Though on the surface it’s a book about wings, Growing Wings is at its heart a coming-of-age story about Linnet and a greater metaphor for difference and discrimination within our society. Andy, another girl at the enclave, despairs that the only way to survive as a winged person is to either become a cutwing like Sarah, who looks normal and can thus operate normally within the confines of modern society, or to hide away forever in rural safehouses far from society in hopes that they’re never discovered. Many people at the enclave have suffered because of their wings—Ellen, the head of the group, is also a cutwing; Andy’s mother tried to sell her to a circus; Charlie’s parents tied him up in the basement and beat him in hopes that the wings would miraculously go away. Later on, the whole group is stalked by journalists hoping for their next big scoop. Yet when Linnet learns her mother’s and grandmother’s side of the story, she never considers becoming a cutwing herself—even if she doesn’t know what future she has as a winged person, she eventually decides that she wants to accept this part of herself and try her best to fly. It’s a fascinating and oddly realistic conflict which has tons of potential (and, indeed, has inspired many a fanfic fav of mine), and yet the story never really reaches that potential.
Growing Wings isn’t quite magical realism wingfic, like Gabriel García Márquez’s A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings, but it’s also not quite science fiction wingfic, like James Patterson’s Maximum Ride. It’s just… a story where people unexpectedly grow wings and have to deal with it. And while that works on a character level, I’m left wanting far more on a worldbuilding level. I’m so intrigued by the world of Growing Wings—especially the end, which reveals that there are more winged people and cutwings all across the world—that I need to know what happens next. Does Linnet ever learn to fly? What do other winged folk do to hide? What happens when the world at large finally finds out about them? How would winged integration work? What’s the winged civil rights movement going to be like? I loved the few pages of the novel so much that I didn’t just want a proof of concept book. After reading it for the second time as an adult, I searched in vain for a possible sequel or expansion, only to be bitterly disappointed. If you have such an awesome idea, why not build on it to its full potential? Growing Wings, unfortunately, still reads like a rough draft to me.
If you, like me, are really into stories about people with wings, I’d still pick up Growing Wings and give it a read. Despite its plot deficiencies, it’s still one of my favorite takes on wingfic, and reading it as a young child always made me wonder if my sometimes-itchy back meant that I was going to grow wings too. However, if you’re more into a plotty story with deeper societal consequences, you might want to pick up another book instead.