I had absolutely no idea what to expect with Bird when I sat down to read it over the weekend. It could have been a ghost story. It could have been a heart-wrenching tale of family tragedy. It could have been silly, or mystical, or preachy, or boring. I chose to just dive right in and see what happened. Bird not a terribly long book, and as it’s written for middle grade readers I was able to get through it in one evening. It turned out to be quite different from any of those adjectives, though I’m not sure which ones would fit better. Personal, maybe, or truthful, or heartfelt. I don’t usually like to use the term heartfelt. It sounds sentimental most of the time. But this is the sort of book you feel in your heart, though I was happy that the author doesn’t try too hard to reach inside your chest and prod that bloody muscle into pieces. Jewel’s narration is poignant enough without much meddling. Even though Bird had its slow moments and got a little introspective for my tastes, I found myself watching Jewel’s family and friendships build themselves up from near breaking with devoted interest, and cheering inwardly for every small victory along the way.
Jewel’s grandfather didn’t murder her older brother John, but he did give him the nickname “Bird” and joke that the little boy could fly. So, when Bird actually did jump from a cliff and die — at the same hour as Jewel’s birth — Grandpa got the blame. Jewel’s dad believes that his father called unwanted attention from duppies, which are ghosts and tricky spirits common to their native Jamaican folklore, by bestowing the unusual nickname. Now Jewel is twelve and her home is still rife with silence and tension, so many years after the accident. Her grandpa hasn’t spoken a word since Bird died, and the old man exudes anger and sadness from behind his closed door and closed mouth. Jewel’s father insists that she learn about duppies and how to avoid them, while her mother insists that spirits don’t exist and wishes Jewel would focus on the real world. So much goes unsaid in Jewel’s household, it’s no wonder she sometimes feels like Bird’s memory matters more than she does; the living sister who never met her brother but feels his presence everywhere.
When Jewel meets a boy named John perched in her favorite tree, she can’t decide if it’s coincidence, fate, or something a little magical which has brought them together. John claims to be staying with his uncle in the small town, but some details of his story are puzzling and vague. His appearance quickly catches the attention of everyone in Jewel’s family. Her mother really smiles for the first time in many years when she talks to Jewel’s new friend. Her father gets suspicious. And Grandpa gets furious,vigorously duppy-proofing the house and making it clear that John’s not welcome near his family. But John understands Jewel’s passion for geology — a passion her family disregards entirely– and together they manage to have fun in the moment rather than dwelling on tragedy. So she isn’t ready to give up her new-found friendship just because the grandfather who has never spoken to her sees a trickster ghost in John’s appearance. Nor is she willing to question the strange discrepancies in John’s stories about himself, until it might be too late to ask.
Bird is a story about belonging and forgiveness. As Jewel and her family try to work through the memories which are burdening their present, Crystal Chan shows how what we choose to believe in can change the way we see life, the afterlife, and the people who make life worth living in the first place.
For all its talk of ghosts and untimely demises, Bird is not a fantasy at all, nor is it much of a wild ride. The entire tone is resolutely true to life, which makes Jewel’s father and grandfather even more interesting as characters when they dwell on the superstitions of their heritage. I think that one of my favorite things about Bird was the inclusion of Jamaican folklore, and the way it blended or clashed with reality. The writing might be realism, but names hold just as much power here as they do in fairy-tales, and there’s always a little hope of magical intervention as long as characters believe in it.
Jewel’s mother is partially Hispanic, but doesn’t speak Spanish, and her father is Jamaican, so our young heroine sort of stands out in her Midwestern town. Chan handled the mix of cultures pretty well; all the vivid details about heritage served to give the characters memorable personalities rather than just appearing like forced “fun facts” scattered throughout the text. Jewel’s mixed race background in a predominantly white town was mentioned with a matter-of-fact and candid honesty I very much liked about the character.
John, too, voices some really poignant observations about the nature of belonging. In the way he brushes off any awkward questions about his being adopted by a white family, and then the true frustration which he eventually reveals, the novel shows that even kids whose parents pay them plenty of attention can feel legitimately alienated. One moment which really stuck out to me was when John explained to Jewel that he acts cheerful and nonchalant about his background because no one wants to hear his real opinion about it. There’s a lot in Bird about how hard it is to live up to adults’ warped expectations, especially when you’re young and full of life with not enough living going on around you.
At the same time, the hardships grown-ups have to face are treated fairly. When Jewel and her Grandpa finally find a way to communicate, I felt a weight lift off my shoulders, a weight I didn’t even realize had descended upon me while I read. Grandpa was definitely my favorite character, even though he wasn’t very likable for the majority of the book. For a man of very few words, he had such an emotional history and it was wonderful to watch Jewel’s perceptions of him change over the course of the novel.
Bird is a sort of quiet, detailed, sensitive novel. Kids who need action and peril to hold their interest in a story would find it hard to race through the pages. There’s death, and a few near-misses, but not much in the way of swashbuckling or saving the world. Instead, Jewel and John and the small cast of other characters are trying to salvage and re-build their own little worlds, pursuits which are equally important. Fans Kate DiCamillo’s more serious books and Sharon Creech will enjoy Bird, and follow Jewel’s discoveries with sympathy and interest. I’m recommending it to thoughtful kids and to their parents, too, because Bird is full of moments which shed light on how the living — and the dead — from very different generations sometimes struggle to see things as they truly are.
Characters: **** (4 stars)
Character Development: ***** ( 5 stars)
Plot: *** (3 stars)
Writing : **** (4 stars)
Overall: **** (4 stars)
Age range recommendation: 9 and up.