Entrenched secrets, mysterious spirits, and an astonishing friendship weave together in this extraordinary and haunting debut that School Library Journal calls “a powerful story about loss and moving on.”
Nothing matters. Only Bird matters. And he flew away.
Jewel never knew her brother Bird, but all her life she has lived in his shadow. Her parents blame Grandpa for the tragedy of their family’s past: they say that Grandpa attracted a malevolent spirit—a duppy—into their home. Grandpa hasn’t spoken a word since. Now Jewel is twelve, and she lives in a house full of secrets and impenetrable silence.
Jewel is sure that no one will ever love her like they loved Bird, until the night that she meets a mysterious boy in a tree. Grandpa is convinced that the boy is a duppy, but Jewel knows that he is something more. And that maybe—just maybe—the time has come to break through the stagnant silence of the past.
About the Author
Crystal Chan watched with amazement at the exotic zoo outbreak in Zanesville, Ohio in 2011, where scores of animals—hungry lions, panthers, and tigers—ran loose around the county. That incident helped inspire her most recent novel, All That I Can Fix. When Crystal isn’t writing, her passion is giving diversity talks to adults and kids alike, telling stories on Wisconsin Public Radio, and hosting conversations on social media. Her debut novel, Bird, was published in nine countries and is available on audiobook in the US. She is the parent of a teenage turtle (not a ninja).
Read an Excerpt
GRANDPA stopped speaking the day he killed my brother, John. His name was John until Grandpa said he looked more like a Bird with the way he kept jumping off things, and the name stuck. Bird’s thick, black hair poked out in every direction, just like the head feathers of the blackbirds, Grandpa said, and he bet that one day Bird would fly like one too. Grandpa kept talking like that, and no one paid him much notice until Bird jumped off a cliff, the cliff at the edge of the tallgrass prairie, the cliff that dropped a good couple hundred feet to a dried-up riverbed below. Bird’s little blue bath towel was found not far from his body, snagged on a bush, the towel that served as wings. From that day on, Grandpa never spoke another word. Not one.
The day that Bird tried to fly, the grown-ups were out looking for him—all of them except Mom and Granny. That’s because that very day, I was born. And no one’s ever called me anything except Jewel, though sometimes I wish they had. Mom and Dad always said that I was named Jewel because I’m precious, but sometimes I think it’s because my name begins with J, just like John’s name, and because they miss him and didn’t want to give me a normal name like Jenny or Jackie. Because John had a normal name, and now he’s dead.
It was my twelfth birthday today, and everyone was supposed to be happy. It was hard to be happy, though, when Grandpa shut himself up in his room for the whole day, like he does every year on my birthday. Mom and Dad made me a cake with vanilla frosting and sprinkles, gave me a present—some socks from the dollar store, but they’re cute and all—and the three of us went to the cemetery to visit Bird and Granny. I always watch those movies where kids have big birthday parties with music and party hats and huge presents and even ponies, and I think it would be nice to have a birthday like that. Especially the ponies. Just once. Instead, I’ve always had to share my special day with the silence behind Grandpa’s closed door and the silence at the cemetery and the silence that hangs thick between Mom and Dad’s words.
Mom and Dad washed the dishes from my birthday cake and went to bed, but I couldn’t go to sleep, just like every year on my birthday, because I kept imagining what Bird was like, what kind of brother he would have been, and what five-year-olds think when they throw themselves off cliffs.
So I did what I often do when I can’t sleep: I changed into my jeans and a long-sleeve shirt, put on some bug spray, and crept out of the house and into the star-studded night. There’s this huge oak tree just down the road in Mr. McLaren’s field, and I often climb that tree as high as I can, and lean my back against its warm, thick trunk. There, I watch the moon arc through the sky and listen to the whirring of the crickets or the rustling of the oak leaves or the hollow calls of the owl.
For a moment, I thought about going to the cliff where my brother flew. But I knew better than to go there at night.
Now, in my small town of Caledonia, Iowa, we have one grocery store with one cashier, named Susie; three churches; our part-time mayor, who works in our town hall, which also serves as the post office; two restaurants that run the same specials, just on different days; and fourteen other businesses. Things here are as stable as the earth, and that’s how folks seem to like it. No one’s ever told me that going to the cliff should be kept secret, but that’s one of the things about adults: The most important rules to keep are the ones they never tell you and the ones they get the angriest about if you break.
I wouldn’t tell them I go to the cliff anyway, because adults don’t listen to what kids have to say. Not really. If they did, they would actually look at me when I talk, look good and deep and open-like, ready to hear whatever comes out of my mouth, ready for anything. I don’t know any adult who’s ever looked at me like that, not even my parents. So the good stuff, the real things that I’ve seen and experienced, like at the cliff—I keep all that to myself. My family doesn’t fit in as it is.
Anyway, tonight I was making my way down County Line Road, which still radiated heat, and my tennis shoes were scuffing against the gravel when suddenly I got the feeling that something was wrong. Different. A shiver zipped across my skin. I stopped and looked at my oak tree. The moon was waxing, growing slowly toward its milky whole self, and the tree was glowing and dark at the same time, its arms spread wide like a priest’s toward the sky. As I squinted in the silver light, a pit formed in my stomach, and I realized what it was.
Someone was already in my tree.
“Heya,” said a voice. It was a boy’s voice. I tensed up all over. There’s never anyone outside at this time of night, grown-up or kid. Maybe it was a duppy, those Jamaican ghosts that Dad always worried about. Duppies’ powers are strongest at night, Dad says, and they often live in trees. You can tell a duppy lives there when a tree’s leaves blow around like crazy even though there’s not a speck of wind. Or if one of its limbs breaks off for no good reason. If something like that happens there’s definitely a duppy in that tree, right there. Duppies can also be tricky and just show up. Like, they can be in your tree when there was never a duppy there before.
But the boy’s voice carried long and lonely through the night in a way that I didn’t think a duppy’s voice could, and each leaf on each limb was perfectly still, frozen in the moonlight. On any normal night I might have just played it safe, turned around, and run back home, but it was my birthday, my special day, and I wasn’t going to go running away and let a duppy ruin it. So instead I said, “Hey,” back, and I stepped over the shoots of corn, crossing the dry, hard dirt of Mr. McLaren’s field. The boy was up on the third limb—the same limb I was meaning to sit on—and his shadowed legs straddled the branch like a horse, swinging back and forth, back and forth.
He was in my tree and I felt kind of stupid, like I didn’t know what to do.
“What are you doing out here at this time of night?” he asked me. I peered up but couldn’t see his face.
I tried to shrug casually. “I climb my tree sometimes, when I can’t sleep.”
“Is that true?” He said it surprised, but like he didn’t really want an answer, so I didn’t give him one. “But it’s not your tree, now, is it?” he said.
“It’s not yours, either.”
The limb creaked, like he was peering down at me. I squirmed a little in the moonlight. “Is too my tree. I’m John. This is my uncle’s farm, so it’s my tree. I can climb it anytime I want.”
I’m sure he said some other things, but my brain stopped after he said I’m John.
I must have looked as stupid as I felt, because his voice got a little nicer. “You know, not too many other kids live around here in this middle of nowhere. Especially not many who climb trees at night.”
And before I knew it, he was asking me to come up and sit with him, and I was shimmying up the rope that I’d tied and then climbing the warm, tough bark of the tree, hand over hand, legs pushing forever up, until I was sitting on the branch below his. John’s face was still dark, as I was craning my neck up into the cool shadows.
But I was sitting in a patch of moonlight, and he got a good look at me. “Hey,” he said, “what are you, anyway?” The words were curious, not mean. “You’re not from around here.”
A little something tightened inside me, like it did every time I got this question, but I was used to it. Mostly. “I’m half-Jamaican, a quarter white, and a quarter Mexican,” I said.
“Wow,” John said. “I didn’t know people could turn out like that.”
“And I am from around here,” I said, making sure my voice carried over the crickets. “I was born in the house down the road.”
John said, “I’m not trying to insult you or anything. I’ve just never met someone like you.”
I twirled a thick, kinky lock of hair around my finger, then untwirled it. I’ve learned that it’s best to get this conversation out of the way so we can talk about more interesting things. “Well, now you have,” I replied. “And my name’s Jewel.”
He nodded, almost like he already knew that. “Jewel,” he said. His voice lingered over the word. “I like that name.”
“It’s memorable. Like, everyone’s going to know they’ve met a Jewel. But ‘John’? Forget it. We’re a dime a dozen.”
“No, you’re not.” The words came out too fast, too harsh, too laden with pain I forgot to hide.
John paused in the darkness, on his third limb. “Okay, maybe a dollar a dozen, then.” He spoke carefully now. “But I still think Jewel is nice.”
We sat in that tree in the middle of the field under the waxing moon. Suddenly he said, “You know, stars are like jewels. But they don’t twinkle like you think. What your eye perceives as twinkling is the light waves refracting through the layers of the atmosphere.”
The way he spoke, he sounded like a teacher. A good teacher. Maybe that’s why I decided to ask a question, not like in school. “Refracting?” I asked.
“The light bends,” he said. “At a lot of different angles, depending on the layers of atmosphere, and that refracting light changes how we perceive the position and size of a star.” His voice hung in the space above me. “The only way to see the stars as they truly are is to get above the atmosphere. Into space.”
There was no breeze that night, just a thin layer of moist air that hung around us, like the entire earth was listening in.
“I never thought about stars like that.”
John laughed, and it was a short, nice laugh. “Just wait until the Perseids show up.”
“The Perseids. A huge meteor shower that takes place in August.”
I had never seen the Perseids before, or even heard of them, and I said so.
“It’s okay,” he said. “Most people can’t see what’s in front of them if they don’t know what they’re looking for. But once you know what you’re looking for, you wonder how you didn’t see it. Just wait: Once you see the Perseids, you’ll see them every year, guaranteed.”
“How do you know so much about stars?” I blurted out.
I heard the smile in his voice. “I’m going to be an astronaut when I grow up.”
John was so different from the other kids in Caledonia. Most kids around here want to be mechanics or nurses or take over the family business. I almost told him that I was going to be a geologist when I grow up, but I didn’t. Instead, I was quiet. If you give up too much of yourself, too fast, then someone can just up and take it away. And a person like me, without too much of my own to start with—well, you need to be careful with what you got.
I don’t know how long we sat there, but sitting in that tree felt different this time around. Maybe I was getting too old. Or maybe it was just strange sitting there with someone else.
I climbed down after a while, and he climbed down after me. I saw him for the first time clearly in the moonlight, and it was then that I realized why I couldn’t see him all that well before: His skin was dark, dark as the night sky.
“You’re McLaren’s nephew?” I blurted out. My mouth was too fast for any politeness. Mr. McLaren is as white as white could get.
John smiled, and his teeth shone like tiny rows of moons. “Sure am. I’m adopted. Raised by white people. It’s not as bad as it sounds.”
I wasn’t sure if he was talking about being adopted or being raised by white people, but I nodded as if I understood. He held out his hand, and I took it and shook it, just like the grown-up I was becoming. I was surprised at how firm his grip was, like we were going to conquer the world.
It was the best handshake ever.
But handshake or no handshake, as my shoes crunched against the gravel on my way home, I wondered about how I could meet someone named John on this night. As Dad says, there are no coincidences in life. Which is a fancy way of saying that when things are meant to happen, no matter how mysterious or crazy or impossible, they’re going to happen. And I think he’s right.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Bird is probably one of the best middle grade novels I’ve read in a very long time. I’ll admit that I can be extremely picky when it comes to books. I’ve been known to abandon books after reading the first two or three pages because I didn’t like the writer’s style or the narrator’s voice, but Bird had me intrigued right away. Straight off the bat, we learn that Jewel’s grandfather played a role in her brother’s death, by giving him a misleading nickname. The book begins on the day of Jewel’s twelfth birthday, which unfortunately is also the twelve-year anniversary of her brother’s death. She goes on to explain that though birthdays are generally a happy event, it was always difficult to be happy on her birthday because of what happened the day she was born. Later that night, she sneaks out of the house for some alone time and meets a boy who goes by the name John—her brother’s birth name. The two of them immediately hit it off and develop a friendship but her grandfather doesn’t trust John and goes out of the way to keep him away from Jewel and her family. What I love about this book is how relatable, yet different the story is. Everyone has their own personal demons and many people will tell you that they have spent their whole life living in the shadow of an older sibling who did everything better. But for Jewel, it is completely different. She constantly reminds her parents of the son they had lost. This not only makes her feel inadequate, but also gives her the impression that her parents don’t love her and don’t want her around, taking the misunderstanding that happens between parent and child to a whole new level. Many books deal with identity and parent and child relationships but Bird is on a completely different playing field. As the story unfolds, we learn more about Jewel’s family and watch as everything falls apart. Bird is a compelling story about values, traditions and relationships that redefines what it means to be a family. I laughed and I cried. I finished the book in one sitting simply because I could not put it down.
Short, but full of so much feeling.
Don't let the fact that the book summary really doesn't say much turn you off of this one. It was an amazing story about a family trying desperately to move on after a tragedy - and so far failing to do so. Their 12 year old daughter is feeling the brunt of this tragedy - the death of her brother on the day she was born. Her family has never come out from under this cloud, in fact her grandfather doesn't even speak anymore. Jewel has learned to live life this way, until she meets a new boy in town. He helps her see herself as something valuable and smart. He shows her that she has something to contribute. It was beautiful to watch this family slowly begin to pull themselves back together and build their life all over again. There was a surprising amount of culture in this story. An interesting mix of Jamaican and Mexican. I learned a lot about Jamaican superstitions and they play a role in how this family functions. They are also the cause of many arguments and long time hard feelings. Yet more things for Jewel to find herself stuck in the middle of. Bird was a great coming of age story about a family that has hit rock bottom and the daughter that pulls them back up again. *This book was received in exchange for an honest review*
Pros: Great start to book! Author has excellent ability to speak from a child's perspective, although with more complexity and grace. Great plot and great surprises all the way to the end. Cons: None. "Bird" by Crystal Chan is an excellent surprise of a book! I assumed that the book would be about the trials and triumphs of a mixed race girl as she learns to handle society's response to her identity. That isn't a bad concept for a book, but I've read plenty of books like that. What I received from Crystal Chan was a book that demonstrated, rather than just showed, the fluidity of identity, childhood, culture and more on par with books like "To Kill a Mockingbird". It began with a very gripping scene and then mellowed a little as the reader gets to travel in the life of "Bird" (the main character. From there, the plot thickens as Bird has to navigate through many worlds as a lone daughter with parents of two different cultures and perspectives, as a friend to John (who turns out to be something else than what he says), and as a griever to her long-dead brother whose impression still haunts the family. The plot is further enhanced with mystery, because nothing it what it seems. People change alliances, people get fired, and people get hurt. Along the way, readers will experience a few twists and turns that they didn't see coming. (Again, the theme of fluidity.) The ending was simple, but good enough and had just the right amount of mystery with room enough for a potential sequel. A great read for anyone (adult or child over 10) will enjoy! It's that good! Memorable Quotes "I'm half-Jamaican, a quarter white, an a quarter Mexican",I said. "Wow", John said, "I didn't know people could turn out like that" (p.7) "If you give up too much of yourself too fast, then someone can jump up and take it away" (p. 9) "Digging in the backyard is not science" (p. 39) "Dirt is everything" (p. 39) "Shouldn't they ask who I am? Why am I a what?" (p. 62)
When i first say this book at barns and noble. I read the first page and then I couldn't get out of that book.
Im 13 brown hair blue eys tan average height i do gymnastics and i live in ny . My fave color is purple and i am very outgoing and have a bubbly personality . I am a straighta student and i love helping people . I also adore animals .