“Birdie and Me” by debut author J. M. M. Nuanez is about Jack and Birdie, named by their mother for her favorite presidential people, who must move in with their uncles after their mother dies. Jack, Birdie’s older sister, feels responsible for Birdie, a boy who loves dressing in bright colors, eyeshadow, wearing lots of jewelry and nail polish, and sparkly shoes.
Before their mother died, life was not perfect. She was suffering from some unnamed mental disorder — perhaps she was bipolar — and often, she was unavailable to her children. Their mom would go in her room and not come out for days, so Jack took up the slack and cared for herself and Birdie. But on good days, their mom was also fun to be with, and life was never dull. Since her death, they long to stay with their good friend and neighbor, but that’s not an option.
When they go to live with their Uncle Carl, life changes. Their taciturn Uncle Patrick picks them up in his truck and drops them with Carl. And while Carl is kind, he’s not much for responsibility. When Birdie is bullied at his new school and doesn’t want to go to school, Carl is fine with it. He feeds them on fast food and sweets, and they sleep in the living room on the couch. He also seems to be unstable; he doesn’t own a car or have steady work. But he loves them and cares for them to the best of his ability — which isn’t really enough.
Finally, Patrick is forced to take the two kids. Jack and Birdie feel that they are an imposition on Patrick, and he makes Birdie wear boy clothes. He doesn’t seem to understand either of the kids, and, to them, it appears that he isn’t making any effort to do so. He doesn’t talk much and disappears for hours to the repurposed silo in the front yard. But when push comes to shove, Patrick does defend Birdie. And by the end, Jack comes to realize that while her family might be different from others, that doesn’t make it inferior, and while Patrick might not be communicative, he loves them in his own way.
There aren’t many books about kids who are transgender or gay, and while in this book, Birdie explains that he doesn’t know what he is or how he feels, it’s important that children read books about kids who feel and dress differently from others. One possible problem with the book might be that there’s not a lot of action. Rather, there’s a lot of Jack reminiscing about their life with their mother, and making observations in her journals about what is going on around her. Some readers might feel that there’s not much happening and lose interest.
Something intriguing that the author does is to have one of the parents who is bullying Birdie call Patrick “Patty” in a derisive tone. I wish that the author had chosen to delve into whether or not Patrick had been bullied as a child, and perhaps that was why he wanted to try to protect Birdie from bullies. From my perspective as an adult, it was fairly easy to see that Patrick was doing his best to help the children and that he did care about them. I wonder if children reading the novel would understand the subtle clues about that.
Perhaps the importance of this book is that it deals with mental illness and people who question their gender identity, and thus it gives those children who also might be dealing with those same issues a chance to read about someone who is like them. Just as we need diverse children’s books about race, color, and religion, we also need books that show diversity in terms of mental illness, gender identity, mental ability, and appearance. This book certainly will spark an interest in children looking for those kinds of reads.
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by Kathy Dawson Books, the publisher, for review purposes.