Strange Birds: A Field Guide to Ruffling Feathers

Celia C. Pérez

Celia is a friend, so I am biased here. But I’m pretty sure I would love her books even if I didn’t know her. After the success of her first middle grade novel, The First Rule of Punk, she’s back with Strange Birds, embarking on new territory. Four girls in a Florida town come together as friends, though they’ve each had different upbringings and experiences. The book shows how adolescent friendships can be both expansive and challenging, especially where cultural and class divisions threaten to hinder connections.

There’s Ofelia, the budding journalist with over-protective parents; Aster, the foodie who is homeschooled by her grandfather while her mother is stationed overseas and her father died in combat; Cat, the birdwatcher who is forced by family tradition to be a part of the Floras, a sort of scouting group for girls, though her love of birds conflicts with their use of the traditional hat made from bird feathers; and Lane, the street artist staying with her grandmother in the DiSantis mansion for the summer while her parents work through their divorce in London, after which she’ll move with her mother to New York while her father and brothers stay in London.

Lane, feeling lonely without her family and without any friends in Sabal Palms, orchestrates the assembly of all the girls, and they quickly rally around Cat and her frustration with the Floras. So while Cat’s mother thinks she is vying to become this year’s Miss Floras, she is actually working against the group, specifically the Miss Floras hat. But each girl brings something to the effort, from Ofelia writing a letter to the editor, to Lane’s guerrilla art, and Aster providing treats for sustenance and, at one point, a vehicle for more guerrilla art.

There is also a side plot involving Aster’s grandfather researching a rare orange tree that has possible connections to two of the girls’ families. Although it’s secondary to the main storyline, it comes to have a bigger influence as time goes on. It also reenforces the theme of history and how we generally either choose to uphold a legacy or question its veracity. While both can be ways of honoring the past, the girls learn the value of interrogating, even if it doesn’t always lead to the results they wanted. All the while the story is peppered with peacocks (and peahens), plastic lawn flamingos, and other avian imagery. Strange Birds is a richly realized book for this age group.

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