Wednesday, February 5, 2014

2015 Contenders: Bird, by Crystal Chan

In its opening paragraphs, Bird seems to lay all of its cards on the table. On the day Jewel Campbell was born, her 4-year-old brother John, nicknamed “Bird” by their Grandpa, died jumping off a cliff, trying to fly like his namesake. Since that day, Grandpa has not spoken a word, not for all of Jewel’s twelve years.
We all know what’s going to happen. In the end, Jewel will somehow come to peace with the shadow of Bird’s death. Along the way, there will be coming-of-age tears and anger and confusion and guilt. Grandpa will speak.  There will be a boy. (It says so on the dust jacket!) We’ve read books like this before. But Bird turns out to have many more cards to play, enough to erode my confidence in where the book was going. I found myself continually changing my expectations as I read to the very end.
Cynthia Kadohata wrote one of Bird’s back cover blurbs. As with Kadohata’s The Thing About Luck, I think what readers may find most distinguished about Bird is the portrayal of older characters of cultural heritage from outside the United States. Jewel’s father and Grandpa are Jamaican, while her mother is half-white, half-Mexican. It was particularly striking to find thought-out adult characters that many readers might find superstitious to the extreme.  
I think Chan’s writing is not yet as assured as Kadohata’s, my biggest reservation being the inconsistent voice of the first-person narrator. In just the first pages we get sentences that seem like they could have come from completely different novels: authorly bits (“I watch the moon arc through the sky and listen to the whirring of the crickets or the rustling of the oak leaves or the hollow calls of the owl”) quickly followed by folksy familiarity (“Now in my small town of Caledonia, Iowa, we have one grocery store with one cashier, named Susie. . . Things here are as stable as the earth, and that’s how folks seem to like it”), followed immediately by precocious observation (“that’s one of the things about adults: The most important rules to keep are the ones they never tell you”). In the end, because of Jewel’s uncertain voice and the fact that it’s hard to love a book that has so much hurt in it, I think it unlikely Bird will become a consensus Newbery frontrunner the way The Thing About Luck did.
Today's guest reviewer is Leonard Kim. Leonard is not a librarian, though his all-time favorite job was working in a library during grad school. He is the father of three kids, ages 4-11, and has greatly enjoyed immersing himself in their literature.  

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