Chris Benjamin Reviews Valerie Sherrard’s Birdspell
DCB (an imprint of Cormorant Books)
I read a review copy of Valerie Sherrard’s Birdspell to my nine-year-old daughter over a six-week period, a little bit every other night. The intended age range is listed as 9-12, so she’s right at the early end of that range. She’s a pretty good reader but I think this book would have challenged her. Reading it aloud to her worked well.
A very brief recap of the plot (no spoilers): Grade Six student Corbin Hayes has moved with his mother into a new apartment. Again. They have a history of being evicted. Poverty is a factor, but underlying that is Corbin’s mother’s struggles with bipolar disorder. She has a cycle that involves getting medicated, going off the meds (which she finds take away her sense of self), spiraling downward (including losing her job and getting evicted), getting help and getting medicated again.
Corbin recognizes the pattern and its stages but is mostly powerless to stop it. Now in a new home and school, something else changes. He acquires a pet parakeet from a new friend at school. The bird is a tremendous comfort and companion, someone he can talk to without fear of reprisal for his mother. He befriends a couple of his neighbours too. It’s the first time he’s taken the risk of making friends, and that proves to make all the difference.
My daughter and I really enjoyed this story of a boy coping with his mother’s bipolar disorder, and the chaos it brings to his life. The ending felt a bit deus ex machina to me, but the situation itself felt very real, and spoke to a common cause of poverty and instability.
The titular bird was less central to the story than I expected, although it was a nice touch and one that helped pull other key characters together. That was important, because it was those characters, the fact they cared about Corbin, and were willing to take action when they saw how he was suffering, that in the end showed the potential to make change in his and his mother’s lives.