THE SOMEDAY BIRDS by Sally J. Pla – Review by Bridget Hodder
THE SOMEDAY BIRDS is a triumphant debut with the resonance and depth of an instant classic. Author Sally J. Pla’s story digs deep into the truth of the autism experience and comes up with wisdom, hilarity, tenderness, and precious, complicated hope.
Emily Dickinson described hope as “the thing with feathers.” For our main character, Charlie–a budding ornithologist as well as the teller of this unique tale–that’s quite literally true. Because Charlie’s hope for connecting with his brain-injured war journalist dad lies in a list of birds that he and his dad hoped to see together someday: the Someday Birds. Maybe, just maybe, if Charlie can manage to find most of the Someday Birds, the good news will help revive his father, who’s the only person in the world who ever seemed to really understand him.
Motherless Charlie, his teen sister, and his younger twin brothers, are being cared for by their highly emotional grandmother while their father languishes in the hospital. At the beginning of the book, the family seems to alternate between ignoring Charlie, and tossing casual cruelties his way. Gram yells at him. His brothers set up booby traps of dead bugs and dryer lint to torment him (Charlie’s a hand-washing certified germ-o-phobe), and his sister Davis is more interested in crushing on guys than hanging out with a brother who struggles to hold his own in an unwelcoming world.
But things are about to change.
Their dad is transferred to a hospital in Virginia for a special treatment, thousands of miles away. Gram goes with him. And after a series of mishaps, the kids set out from California on a road trip that will take them to join Dad and Gram, in a creaky old camper, with a mysterious pink-haired young woman called Ludmila. It’s a journey that will lead the kids not only to Virginia and several of the Someday Birds, but to a new understanding of Charlie, their family, and themselves.
The voyage is extremely uncomfortable for Charlie, who finds any break in his careful routines distressing and disorienting, but it’s a true joy for readers. Pla’s realistic events and characters aren’t the usual bleak, distancing stereotypes: they’re fresh, relatable and surprising, as they grow up and grow closer in the space of a few short weeks.
Charlie’s quirky bravery and his way of approaching the world without a filter are irresistible. Readers will laugh out loud at some of his bluntly-worded observations; and some of his statements can make you catch your breath with quick pain. Because, contrary to what others might think, Charlie notices when people slight or dismiss him, and he feels deeply the difference between his struggle to adapt to even the most minor changes, and everyone else’s easy acceptance of life’s variations.
Contrasted with human unpredictability, Charlie finds birds and their behaviors profoundly comforting. So when he realizes that the famous bird authority, Tiberius Shaw, Ph.D., has managed to learn about life and humanity through the study of birds, Charlie’s quest expands to include finding Shaw and learning some of those lessons for himself.
The results are utterly magical.
Throughout this delightful story, you’ll never guess what waits around the next bend in the road. But I can promise that readers of all backgrounds and ages will be entertained, moved, challenged and uplifted by what they find there.
An #ownvoices book, highly recommended for every school, library and home shelf.
Bridget Hodder has worked with children on the autism spectrum and their families since 1994. Her Cinderella retelling, THE RAT PRINCE, was published by Macmillan/ Farrar, Straus & Giroux/ Margaret Ferguson Books in 2016. Download a Core Curriculum alignment on her website, http://www.BridgetHodder.com , or find her on Twitter, @BridgetsBooks .