The Falcon's Feather is the second book in the Explorer Academy series from National Geographic, infusing the brand's print expertise and connections to the world of geographical storytelling with problem-solving, globe-trotting plotlines, slick maps and illustrations, and a hefty dose of science for younger readers. The plot of this installment is a mile-a-minute mashup of what it would be like if James Bond were a globe-trotting, puzzle-loving tween in an upgrade of the Magic Treehouse series, and I wanted to love it. However, this particular treatment dehumanizes issues of safety, trauma, and mental health while surfacing the costs of what we consider as entertainment.
Once I was a nerdy, science-fiction-loving kid, delighting in the sort of middle-grades books that left me satisfied by a good story but also wanting to know more about planetary dynamics, deep-ocean ecology, or solvents. Now I am a science teacher, as well as a parent of young readers and an avid consumer of YA and middle-grades fiction. All this is to say that I was ready to adventure with Cruz, a student at Explorer Academy. In The Falcon's Feather, we join Cruz and his friends aboard a research vessel in a world tricked out with futuristic tech gadgets, the lightest of Harry Potter–archetype school drama, and an alarming number of folks who want Cruz and/or the people close to him dead.
To be clear, there is some intriguing science and inspiring exploration in this book, as well as some light, age-appropriate romance between young people. However, rooting for our intrepid main character and absorbing the wide range of fast-paced, fun science and geography woven into this book became exhausting for me as the shadow of danger grew without bounds. The entire plot hinges on Cruz following clues from his dead mother, murdered by her previous employer (turned crime syndicate), that will hopefully lead to the formula she discovered for a regenerative serum. This setup is just the tip of the death-and-peril iceberg: someone tosses Cruz's room, sabotages his diving gear, kidnaps his dad, and tries to kill him in a remote cave in Iceland after killing his mom's good friend. Oh, and there are still two unnamed operatives of the syndicate aboard the boat. All the small puzzles that move Cruz and the plot forward are interesting and are solved in the text seamlessly a few paragraphs later for those who are stumped or interested in other features of the story, but that's a small compensation for the experiences many young people will have as they follow a kid constantly on the run who doesn't know whom to trust.
The pressure on Cruz is constant, and the intent is that the pressure propels the plot forward. However, it primarily served to remind me that our tween and teen children are growing up in a world where anxiety is increasingly their most authentic motivation for academic excellence. I'm skeptical that amplifying that experience, as this book does, is a healthy gift to kids.
In the world of today – between school violence, the rise of performance anxiety among tweens and teens, the pressures of state-mandated testing on teachers and students, the dearth of available school psychologists and counselors (in this book and in real life), systemically racist policies that result in a disproportionate share of persecution and death among young Black and brown men (like Cruz), and now the short- and long-term effects of the global pandemic and its consequences – suffice it to say that our youth have enough to worry about without this book verifying that constant anxiety is a plausible coping mechanism for any of the above, or even entertaining.
But I'm not the target audience, so I informally asked my high schoolers, after describing my concerns, about whether or not middle-grade and YA readers should be encouraged to read such a book. My students pointed out that the favorite stories of their youth often include death. However, all their beloved examples narrate adventures in clearly delineated fantasy or mythological settings. By contrast, this book is set in the near-now but lacks any of the insight into systemic inequity, danger, or personal growth that is increasingly commonplace in contemporary YA and middle-grades fiction of the “here and now.”
It does not escape me that Cruz is searching for a healing potion: a balm for injury, insurance against pain. I, too, longed for one after reading this book. On the other hand, you may have a student who is reading at or slightly below grade level and has grown weary of the traditional fare, or a cartoon-watching daredevil who wants to think about what it means to be brave. In that context, and with your participation in supporting conversations about the above issues, this book might be a motivating read.
AMANDA L. GLAZE-CRAMPES is an Assistant Professor of Middle Grades & Secondary Science Education at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, Georgia. In addition to science teacher education, she has taught courses in biological sciences for grades 7–12 and undergraduate students over the last 14 years. Her interests include evolutionary biology, science and religion, and the intersections of science and society – specifically where scientific understandings are deemed controversial by the public. She holds degrees in science education from the University of Alabama and Jacksonville State University. Her address is Middle Grades & Secondary Education, Georgia Southern University, P.O. BOX 8134, Statesboro, GA 30458; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.