Title: Extraordinary Birds
Author: Sandy Stark-McGinnis
Publisher: Bloomsbury, April 30th, 2019
Themes: birds, belonging, family, friendship, scars,foster homes, trauma, abandonment, hope, transgender
At the third tier of branches, my heart starts to beat fast. Birds need a fast heartbeat. It helps move oxygen through their bodies. Oxygen, lots of it, they need in order to fly.
December knows everything about birds, and everything about getting kicked out
of foster homes. All she has of her mom is the bird guide she left behind, and
a message: “In flight is where you’ll find me.” December believes
she’s truly a bird, just waiting for the day she transforms. The scar on her
back is where her wings will sprout; she only needs to find the right tree and
When she’s placed with foster mom Eleanor, who runs a taxidermy business and volunteers at a wildlife rescue, December begins to see what home means in a new light. But the story she’s told herself about her past is what’s kept her going this long. Can she learn to let go?
Why I like this book:
December has been shunted through the foster system as long as she can remember. Her rare memories of her mom make little sense. To cope with all this pain and dysfunction she has developed a passionate interest in birds and flying that borders on an obsession. While December’s foster home abuse is hinted at it is not the focus of the story, rather Sandy takes the reader on a journey with December as she evolves and heals through her encounters. December has to learn to trust again, both others and ultimately herself. In order to do this, she has to let go of the fantasy she has created for herself to survive (and flee the pain), i.e. the scars on her shoulders are actually wings ready to spread so she can take flight. The evolution to freedom and self-acceptance through supportive relationships is told in lyrical and poetic language with a sophisticated simplicity that makes it super readable for tweens.
“If people could fix memories like they fix a house, covering up holes. stopping leaks, hanging doors back on hinges, then bad images couldn’t get through.”
“But I like his voice; it’s what trees would sound like if they could talk.”
The author’s pacing in this debut is extraordinary, as December slowly reveals her childhood experiences. The process is heart-breaking, but will leave a young reader with a strong sense of December’s inner strength and powerful trajectory. The literary tool of December as the unreliable narrator is also skillfully used, and it is a pleasure to see such sophisticated writing for a middle grade audience.
Sandy pulls off the bird metaphor with subtlety. The science of flight, bird anatomy and behavior etc are all woven organically into the story. I think readers will be surprised how much factual information they absorb while reading Extraordinary Birds.
I absolutely adore the two supporting characters, Cheryllyn and Eleanor. Both are fully fleshed out with their own personal story arcs. Cheryllyn befriends December pretty much on December’s first day at school and though December at first resists, a supportive relationship soon develops. December is bullied for being friends with Cheryllyn, formerly Charley, who is targeted for her recent change of gender.
New foster mom, Eleanor (and December’s amazing foster case worker, Adrian) provides the love, patience, stability and vulnerability that December needs to face her past and embrace a hopeful present. The two found each other when they needed one another most. The healing is progressive and authentic on this emotional roller coaster of abandonment, loneliness, friendship, and learning to love and trust others for the first time.
I am a friend and critique partner of the author and thus had the privilege of seeing this beautiful manuscript in its early stages. All bias aside, I think this is an outstanding debut and hope it will receive the recognition I believe it truly deserves. It comes out in a week. Buy it! You won’t be disappointed.