Birdy by Sharon Kernot

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As with many verse novels, I was able to read Birdy in a couple of hours, and was invested enough in the slow reveal to do so in one sitting. However the beautifully expressive but sparse prose really warrants rereading to appreciate the skill with which Kernot has created the stories of main characters Maddy and Alice.

15 year-old Maddy and her family have moved to an isolated farmhouse following a traumatic unnamed ‘Incident’ that has left her a selective mute. Initially preferring to be alone to read and write poetry like Emily Dickinson, here she slowly heals and finds her voice. Under the caring and watchful eye of her nerdy younger brother and following her psychologist’s suggestions for exposure therapy, she learns to trust again. She embarks on a tentative friendship with the vivacious Levi who can ‘talk for two or more’. She also enjoys visiting the reclusive Alice, who is waiting in vain for her daughter Birdy to return, 45 years after she vanished without a trace.

When Maddy finds Birdy’s diary she learns of Birdy’s father’s death after working at Maralinga, and allusions to an assault that unsettlingly parallels Maddy’s. This information helps her to put her own issues in perspective. However, her healing is interrupted when Levi snaps a selfie with Maddy who is terrified that it will reignite the social media storm that she is trying to put behind her. Maddy has to deal with the emotions that resurface, and the fear that she has lost an important friendship.

Birdy is filled with positive examples of people supporting each other through their words and kind deeds, and touches on some of the different ways of dealing with anxiety. It also addresses the harm that social media can do, and the strength of character required to counter this. The serious issues that shape Maddy and Alice’s lives (implied sexual assault and anxiety, hoarding and depression) are dealt with sensitively and eventually resolved.

With references to locations in the mid-north of South Australia, and the mystery of Birdy’s disappearance to be solved, Birdy is highly recommended for teens, for both its honest, heart-wrenching content and lyrical free-verse style.

Teaching notes are available.

Themes: Loss, Grief, Friendship, Family, Country Town, Mutism, Consent, Bullying, Hoarding, Anxiety, Depression.

Margaret Crohn