Once upon a time, I earned a Master's Degree in Literature and was a Professor of Literature and Composition. I had a wonderful time writing my Master's Thesis about Children's and Young Adult Literature, and I considered earning a Ph.D. so that I could continue to pursue the written word, including British, American, Latin American and other Global Literatures, Children's and Young Adult Literature, all types of genres and occasionally even poetry. But life takes you in unexpected directions, and so now I am working for a non-profit agency (you can read about that on my other blog, A Little Bit of Wonder). Although my job keeps me too busy to post as many book reviews as I would like, Recommended Reading is a place where I can continue to share my literary discoveries and knowledge as time allows.

Please note that I post reviews for books that I recommend reading, just like the blog title says. This means that I typically won't post a review for a book that I completely dislike. This isn't because I shy away from making negative comments, but rather because I don't want to waste your time or mine (I won't even bother to finish a book if it's not any good). For more on this, see the explanation of my Rating System.)

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Book Review: What the Birds See

After reading Sonya Hartnett’s mythical The Ghost’s Child, I didn’t know quite what to expect when I began reading her more “realistic” novel What the Birds See. Although it lacks the more fantastic elements found in The Ghost’s Child, What the Birds See actually has a fair bit in common with the former; no matter what her subject matter, Hartnett’s prose is lyrical and her tone extremely somber. I cannot stress the splendor and originality of Hartnett’s metaphors, in fact. This is a beautiful novel – but be warned that it certainly isn’t a cheery one. It closes on heartbreaking note, without even the uplift that comes at the end of The Ghost’s Child.

Different summaries that I had read of the novel on Amazon led me to believe that the story was about three children who had disappeared from their neighborhood on the way to the local ice cream shop. This event was more of a background for the novel, though – What the Birds See is really a story about Adrian, a nine-year-old boy who lives in a town about twenty miles from the home of the kidnapped children.

Adrian is a fairly solemn child, naturally sensitive and even more reticent because he has been taken away from his junkie mother and his father has abandoned him, leaving him with his grandmother. “Grandmonster” Beattie loves Adrian, but feels that she is too old to be raising another child – especially since all three of her own children have turned out so poorly. She does her best to take care of Adrian, but he can sense that he is unwanted and lives with the fear that he is like the discarded children and orphans in the nearby “home.” His classmates tell him that those children, having been abandoned, have gone crazy – and one of their classmates from the orphanage certainly seems to have an actual mental illness. Poor Adrian is consumed by fears and loneliness, convinced that in the end, everyone will abandon him.

Adrian is truly a heartbreaking child, a character that made me recall all my own childhood fears of being ostracized by my peers and my dread of the unknown. He is so sensitive and vulnerable that I wanted to reach into the novel and comfort him, bring him home with me and adopt him. Even if he hadn’t directly reminded me of myself, I would have been moved by compassion for this character – and the many timid, fearful children like him. They have mostly experienced the world as dangerous place, fill of people who rebuff or even abuse them. I wanted to sign up to be a foster parent after reading this sobering novel, although that would be an extreme course of action.

Perhaps the more immediate lesson is that we need to be more sensitive to children, and more attentive to those who are withdrawn. Now that I am no longer an elementary school teacher, I don’t have a lot of regular contact with children – but perhaps I will look for opportunities to volunteer with disadvantaged children every once in a while. The sad thing is that it is not only economically disadvantaged children who are lonely, fearful and in need of reassurance, though – this novel reveals that even well-groomed children with the appearance of a good home can feel disconnected from their parents and families, alone in a vast and overwhelming world. While teenagers would hopefully learn to be more sensitive toward their peers when reading this novel, parents would do well to pick it up as well – as a reminder to pay more attention to their children and be more sensitive to their fears. This is a beautiful, haunting novel about the consequences of adult selfishness – and as the story reveals, there can be many tragic consequences.

This review participates in my YA Aussie Novels Reading Challenge. Other reviews that I have written for this challenge include: Stolen by Lucy Christopher and The Ghost's Child by Sonya Hartnett. Still to come: Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta (later this week), Surrender and Butterfly by Sonya Hartnett, The Book Thief and I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak.

Do you have any recommendations for YA Aussie novels? Please let me know in the comments section. Thanks!

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