Wendelin Van Draanen knows how to write a story that packs a punch. She did it in “Running Dream,” a story about a high school runner who tragically loses her leg in a crash, and how she learns not just how to walk with a prosthetic, but how to really see others in spite of physical differences. In “Wild Bird,” Van Drannen offers up the story of Wren, a girl who lost her way and ended up involved in drugs.
The story begins when Wren is awakened in the middle of the night and whisked off to a juvie camp in the Utah desert for wilderness therapy for 60 days. It’s a last-ditch effort to rehab Wren, who has proven resistant to therapists, counselors, and every other kind of help her parents tried to get for her.
The story is told in first person narrative, which really helps the reader understand not only what Wren is enduring in the present, but also what led her to this point. She tells the story in alternating tales present and past, as she remembers the events that brought her to the Utah desert.
Wren’s problems had begun when her family moved. Both parents worked, her beloved younger brother attended after-school care, her older sister got popular, and Wren got left out. She didn’t make friends easily, and when she accidentally met someone named Meadow, it seemed like fate that they become friends.
Meadow’s parents were constantly high, and Meadow stole their pot to smoke at school. Wren didn’t want to lose the one person she felt a connection with, so she began to smoke, too. One thing led to another, and soon Wren was shoplifting items to pay for pot.
In the desert, Wren lives a life that seems unimaginably difficult at first. The campers are isolated until they’ve learned to be self-sufficient. That means they must be able to erect a tent from a tarp and string and be able to make their own fire — not from matches but from materials that they’ve gathered and a string. Wren’s frustration and rebelliousness are typical of newcomers, but the reader is enthralled through the process because Van Draanen’s writing is real and heartfelt.
Wren’s change — of course the book is about change — is slow and not steady. Readers feel her hurt and her anger. But they also feel and understand her shame at the things she’s done.
While there are other characters at camp, the readers come to know the characters who are in the past a bit better. Wren is the only character whose narrative is important, whose thoughts and feelings are important, and that makes the story quite impactful. It’s all about Wren and her struggle with herself and the choices she’s made.
This would be a great choice for fifth grade readers and middle school readers. High school readers would also find it interesting. Even adults may want to do camping in the Utah desert to experience what Wren did. I’m ready to try to make a bowstring fire. Maybe.
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by Knopf Books for Young Readers, the publisher, for review purposes.