Entrenched secrets, mysterious spirits, and an astonishing friendship weave together in this extraordinary and haunting debut. Nothing matters. Only Bird matters. And he flew away. Jewel never knew her brother Bird, but all her life she has lived in his shadow. Her parents blame Grandpa for the tragedy of their family’s past; they say that Grandpa attracted a malevolent spirit—a duppy—into their home. Grandpa hasn’t spoken a word since. Now Jewel is twelve, and she lives in a house full of secrets and impenetrable silence. Jewel is sure that no one will ever love her like they loved Bird, until the night that she meets a mysterious boy in a tree. Grandpa is convinced that the boy is a duppy, but Jewel knows that he is something more. And that maybe—just maybe—the time has come to break through the stagnant silence of the past.
My experience with Bird by Crystal Chan really reaffirms my love of audiobooks. See, this is a book I NEVER would have picked up were it not for the fact that I’m powerless against a celebrity narrator. The blurb of the book really didn’t appeal to me, but Amandla Stenberg is adorable, so I had to try this book. Though it’s very much not my usual type of book, Bird by Crystal Chan really worked, particularly due to Stenberg’s performance.
The first awesome thing about Bird is that it’s very diverse. The main character, Jewel, is half Jamaican (on her father’s side) and 1/4 Mexican. The last 1/4 might have been white, but I’m not positive and it’s not as easy to check that info on audio. Jewel feels out of place because she doesn’t look like her parents or like anyone else in their Iowa town. She makes a friend named John, who is black and adopted, so he shares her sense of disconnection.
Jewel and John bond almost immediately when they meet up at a tree they both like to climb. Though their interests are different, they share an intense love of intellectual pursuits. John can tell you just about anything about space and Jewel knows all about geology; he dreams of being an astronaut and she of being a geologist. Now, I know this will probably lose some readers, because probably not many twelve-year-olds dream of geology, but I love reading about precocious genius children, so I was all over this.
Plus, Jewel’s interest in geology makes total sense. She’s lived a lonely life, neglected by her grief-stricken parents and grandfather. She’s spent a lot of time entertaining herself, and got really interested in rocks. She buries them for all her worries and unanswered questions, like the earth is absorbing her problems. Rather like Pocahontas, she believes that rocks and trees have spirits and feelings. For much of her life, nature has been her friend. Chan’s writing occasionally gets rather fanciful and poetic, using nature as a metaphor and this again really works, since this is how Jewel thinks of the world.
More than anything, though, Bird is about Jewel’s family. They don’t talk about anything and that silence about important things is choking the happiness from their lives. Jewel’s brother Bird died on the day she was born. I almost didn’t read the book because Bird is a stupid name, but it’s actually a nickname; his real name is John. All of her life, her parents and grandfather have been too busy grieving for their dead son than to notice their daughter. Her father and mother fight constantly about his belief in Jamaican spirits called duppies having lead to Bird leaping from a cliff because he believed he could fly.
Throughout the novel, Jewel really does have a coming of age. She’s at that age where she really starts to understand how flawed adults are and to understand that it’s not her fault. As she begins to confront the world around her and question the way things are, she’s able to set processes in motion to help mend her whole family. Until they really talk about everything that happened, they can’t cease living in the past. Jewel’s relationship with her grandfather, who hasn’t spoken since Bird’s death because of his feelings of guilt, is particularly touching.
Amandla Stenberg is a great casting for Jewel. Her voice sounds youthful, obviously, but also polite and sort of unassuming. This fits so well with Jewel, who has been so solitary and trying to avoid making her parents angry. Stenberg also captures really well Jewel’s thirst for knowledge and love of nature. She makes the character come alive.
The Final Verdict:
In print, I’m not sure if Bird would have worked for me, but the audiobook really worked for me. I stepped outside of my comfort zone and was rewarded.