Review: A Warning About Swans

A Warning About Swans

by R.M. Romero

Peachtree Teen (imprint of Penguin Random House), 2023

Category: Young Adult
Reviewer: Heather J. Matthews

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Set in Bavaria in 1880, this is the story of Hilde and her five sisters. Norse god Odin, their father and creator, has gifted each of the six sisters with the ability to bring dreams to life. Beyond this gift, Odin gives each sister a cloak which grants them a unique skill, in addition to allowing the girls to take the shape of a swan when wearing the cloak. Hilde’s unique gift is the ability to comfort and usher newly-deceased souls into the afterlife. Six years after gaining her talent, Hilde has struggled under the weight of her task and seeks to experience the human world in her human shape, away from constant death and suffering. Meeting a young man named Baron Maximillian von Richter, Hilde finds an opportunity to put aside her responsibilities and live amongst the humans in her human form. Hilde spends the next few months with Richter, navigating her desire for humanity with the reality of the humanity she finds herself surrounded by.

This YA novel in verse blends history (such as the real Bavarian King Ludwig II, called the Swan King, who is a secondary character in the novel) with fairy tale elements. There is LGBTQ+ representation in the character of Franz Mendelson, the Jewish portrait artist. Franz, who uses they/their pronouns, is non-binary; readers are able to infer by Franz’s dialogue, which includes the following: “I like seeking places where I can be free. Where I don’t have to be a boy to thread new paths or a girl to want flowers blossoming throughout my life. I like discovering where I can be everything I am at once, where I’m not forced to fit into any one shape or be stained by any single color.”

Franz’s struggle with the masculine and feminine which surrounds them is actually central to the theme of the novel. At one point, Franz states that, “I’ve been trying to carve a space for myself here to be between softness and strength, to be who I am.” Ultimately, this book seems to be speaking to the necessity of girls and women to soften their sharp edges and tame their wildness to live in the world where boys and men will find them valuable and worthwhile. When girls and women refuse to do so and seek to instead form a space for themselves to be who they are, they are punished. They meet physical force, or they are socially forced to the margins of society and forced into a shape which society finds more appealing. Hilde meets both of these forces as they determine her place in the world. Notably, this book seems to take place in a space where homophobia is non-existent. However, misogyny is a very real threat throughout the book.

In terms of Jewish representation, I am not sure that this book has enough to adequately be competitive for the Sydney Taylor award. Readers see Franz partaking in Jewish practices, such as praying to the eastern direction, wearing a white shawl (which I read as being a tallit), and speaking in “a language unknown in the forest.” Franz also speaks about King Ludwig II’s open antisemitism and their fears of being employed as Ludwig’s in-house artist. However, much of the Jewish representation seems secondary to Hilde and her story – had Franz not been Jewish, the story really wouldn’t have changed significantly. Because the Jewish representation is fairly minimal, it would not act as a barrier for non-Jewish readers, but it also would not add to a reader’s understanding of Judaism in contemporary times, nor in 1880 Bavaria.

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Reviewer Heather J. Matthews, PhD, is an assistant professor at Salisbury University. Her specialization is in children’s and young adult literature. She is specifically interested in diverse representation within children’s literature.