Birdie and Me

Penguin/Kathy Dawson Bks. Feb. 2020. 256p. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780399186776.
Gr 3-7–When their mama died in a car accident, Jack and her younger brother, Birdie, moved in with their kind, if irresponsible, Uncle Carl. But after 10 months of convenience store food and sporadic school attendance, Carl’s estranged brother, Patrick, must take them in. Emotionally distant Patrick, whom Birdie calls “a clam,” may cook them proper meals, but he does not understand Birdie’s gender creative identity and interest in fashion, or the children’s complicated feelings about their erratic mother, her mental illness, and her death. In short notebook entries scattered throughout the novel, Jack observes the adults governing her life and the grief that animates them. Nuanez excels in depicting a complex family dynamic filtered through a child’s perception. More than anything else, this novel captures the children’s feelings of powerlessness when decisions about where they live, what they wear, and who they can even visit are made by imperfect adult guardians. Also addressed are gender nonconformity, bullying, and adults’ misguided solutions to both, in a refreshingly frank and thoughtful way that always centers the children’s perspectives and understanding of themselves. As Jack, Birdie, and their uncles stumble toward mutual understanding, they build a community of supportive people—imperfect, unsure, but trying their best.
VERDICT This singular story of a grieving and unconventional family belongs alongside Holly Goldberg Sloan’s Counting by 7s, Cindy Baldwin’s Where the Watermelons Grow, and Ali Benjamin’s The Thing about Jellyfish. Highly recommended.
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