A teen copes with her grandmother's coma by becoming obsessed with a mystery bird that she cannot identify in Adrienne Kisner's sharp and poignant YA novel, The Confusion of Laurel Graham.
Seventeen-year-old Laurel Graham has a singular, all-consuming ambition in this life: become the most renowned nature photographer and birder in the world. The first step to birding domination is to win the junior nature photographer contest run by prominent Fauna magazine. Winning runs in her bloodher beloved activist and nature-loving grandmother placed when she was a girl.
One day Gran drags Laurel out on a birding expedition where the pair hear a mysterious call that even Gran can’t identify. The pair vow to find out what it is together, but soon after, Gran is involved in a horrible car accident.
Now that Gran is in a coma, so much of Laurel's world is rocked. Her gran's house is being sold, developers are coming in to destroy the nature sanctuary she treasures, and she still can't seem to identify the mystery bird.
Laurel’s confusion isn’t just a group of warblersit’s about what means the most to her, and what she’s willing to do to fight to save it. Maybejust maybe-if she can find the mystery bird, it will save her gran, the conservatory land, and herself.
About the Author
Adrienne Kisner has master's and doctorate degrees in theology from Boston University. She is the author of Dear Rachel Maddow and is also a graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts with an MFA in writing for children and young adults.
Read an Excerpt
FIELD JOURNAL ENTRY APRIL 29 NOTABLE LOCATION: SARIG POND LIFE LIST ENTRY 3,284: WHITE-WINGED TERN
Never let them see you sweat.
That's not the Birdscout motto. But it fucking well should be.
"Who can tell me three of the feathered friends we might find on our walk today?" I said.
Sixteen pairs of eyes stared back at me, wide and unblinking.
Homeschoolers. Unschoolers. Some kind of schoolers that meant they weren't in the overcrowded gray-and-red brick elementary building seven blocks away and were instead standing at the entrance of the Sarig Pond and Jenkins Wood Nature Sanctuary with me. I thought home-non-unschooling would make them wild, free nature lovers ... but no. Most of them were looking at their smartwatches, secretly texting one another.
"Okay, who can tell me one creature we might find today?" I tried again.
"Um," a tiny girl with cat-eye glasses said. "A squirrel?"
I sighed. Unfortunately she was right. Squirrels were the bane of birders everywhere. (Well. Except maybe in places where there were no squirrels, which were sadly limited.)
"Good guess!" I said.
She grinned. It's best to encourage the little ones. They were prone to unpredictable sudden movements that could veer off the path and ruin your day. Best to keep them on your side. "Can anyone guess a creature with wings?"
"Robins?" another boy tried in a bored voice.
"Yes!" My fist shot into the air. "Sweetest of songbirds! Harbingers of spring! Portents of luck and fortune!" Those last two were debatable at best, but sometimes you needed to finesse bird symbolism in order to win a tough audience. A few heads swiveled my way at that, so I felt I'd made the right choice for the greater good.
"Really?" the bored boy asked.
"You bet. Birds bring messages of all sorts to humans. But there are way more interesting things about them than that. They have their own language to communicate. They can fly hundreds of miles and never get lost. They fight for what's theirs. They are warriors."
"Cool," the boy said. "Do you think we'll see some of those smart ones?"
I smiled to myself. It only takes one to turn a crowd. "Why, yes," I said, peering at the nametag slapped on his fuzzy lapel, "Isaac. I do. Follow me."
Six cardinals (two female, four males), two nuthatches, sixteen (give or take) common grackles, three red-bellied woodpeckers, and one red-tailed hawk later, I delivered the kids back to their adults.
"Feel free to take some pamphlets on your way out," I called. "Nature story time starts on May 30!"
I retreated into the tiny, cramped office of the Birdscout Nature Center and sunk into a chair. Birding with the unenthusiastic could fucking wipe a girl out.
"Oh. Hey," said a voice. I looked up to see a familiar shock of dyed hair shaved into a crest peeking through the door. "If it isn't the Birdscout-in-chief. Is Jerry in?"
"Out sick today," I said. "Risa. Your hair ...," I started.
"What about it?" she said. I could hear a warning in her voice.
"It reminds me of a wire-crested thorntail."
Risa's face broke into a grin. "You got it! Of course you are the only one who noticed. I love them."
"They are exquisite," I agreed.
Risa and I looked at each other for a moment. It was odd that we were having this conversation, since it wouldn't be precisely accurate to call us friends. We were more ... what?
We were one hundred percent enemies.
But sometimes, even enemies had great hair.
I watched Risa's expression change as she seemingly remembered our actual affiliation at the same time I did. "Okay, well, if you see him sometime soon, tell him I need him to sign my co-op hours sheet."
"Okay. Will do."
She paused, like she almost wasn't going to speak but then changed her mind. "Have you finalized your entry yet? For the photo contest?"
"No. You?" I said.
"No. I tried to get a picture of the heron but then I tripped on a root," she said.
"Right? Such a rookie mistake. But I bet everyone around here is going to turn in a fucking heron anyway. Or, god help us all, warblers."
Heat crept up my back. I had no fewer than twenty-three shots of our four resident herons (male and female) that I was considering entering into Fauna magazine's annual Junior Nature Photographer competition. Not to mention several dozen shots of a Cape May and one of a male Swainson. That last one turned out blurry, fuck me, because of course the Swainson flitted out of the frame. This was my last shot to win the Fauna competition (since I'd be too old next year), and I wanted to conquer first place so badly I could practically taste it. The money would be nice, and my grandma (a former winner herself) would love the free lifetime subscription (added to the prize since her time).
But because Fauna was the biggest and best birding magazine in the US (possibly the world, save maybe Le Bec in France), the bragging rights alone were worth it.
Particularly if it meant I'd beaten Risa, who I was pretty certain sabotaged my entry last year.
"Yeah. Probably. But the summer birds will be here before you know it. And there are some impressive blooms in Jenkins Wood. There is already a patch of Monotropa uniflora at the base of Elder Oak. It looks like a proper fungus graveyard. Bet it'd be epic in moonlight at the right angle."
"Are you going for that shot?"
"I tried. It just looks stupid. The flash washes it out and using moonlight through branches isn't exactly my forte."
Risa snorted. "I hear you. Okay. Well. Good luck."
She almost sounded like she meant it. I stared at her absolutely rockin' hair as she left.
I tidied the desk and took a bunch of Ranger Jerry's old newspapers to the upcycling bin. The weekend craft people would have a field day Mod Podging on Saturday. I surveyed my work with satisfaction. I was once again reminded how grateful I was for my co-op assignment (even if Risa was there, too). I had always envied the juniors, who were allowed to avoid going to school for all but a few hours on Thursdays during spring term because of their work/volunteer co-ops in years past, but now it was my turn. It had been the best development of my life thus far. Most of my friends were out at the local newspaper or lawyer's or doctor's offices and made more money than me. Because my life goal was to be the world's best nature photographer and take my place aside my hero, master birder Brian Michael Warbley, spending April till August leading nature walks and birding tours was way more my speed. Even if the pay was technically shit.
Like, literally. Jerry gave me a bag of fertilizer for Gran's garden to compensate me. But it was the best stuff we'd seen and we needed it for her bird-attracting flowers, so I wasn't too salty about it.
I rounded the pond on trash removal detail, but my phone buzzed in my pocket. Elder Oak. Sixty paces due east! Now! the text from Gran read. I was still technically on the clock, but Jenkins Wood was part of my work space and I could always pick up garbage along the trail to make seeing Gran official business if needed.
Be right there. Don't leave! I texted back.
You know I'll always wait for you, Laurel.
I grabbed my camera, locked the Birdscout Center door, and jogged as lightly as I could around the wooden decks surrounding the pond to the woodland paths. I nodded to Elder Oak, the oldest tree and guardian of the entrance to Jenkins Wood, and tried to make my way as quietly as possible sixty paces east through a rough path covered in dew-wet leaves. I picked up a few discarded wrappers along the way, darkly noting that they probably came from the awful Birdie Bros (a group of dude birders who had terrible nature manners matched only by their preternatural ability to get rare warbler shots).
I finally found Gran half-hidden in fern fronds about halfway up a hill. I crouched in the grass, rocks crackling underneath my boots.
"Shhh," whispered Gran.
"I didn't even say anything," I whispered back.
Gran glared at me as something rustled in a shrub a few feet away. A beak poked out of glistening leaves, then a head, then downy feathers on spindly legs. Gran gave a tiny yawp, and pointed her high-powered binoculars in the bird's direction. I pulled out my camera and my shutter clicked like an automatic weapon.
"Did you get it?" said Gran without looking at me. She stared at the bird, and the bird stared back at her. I stared at both of them, wondering at how quickly the feeling had left my crouching legs.
Note: Do more crunches. Strengthen core and calves. A girl does not become Brian Michael Warbley, the King of Birders, with numb appendages.
Then something even worse happened.
This spooked Gran's avian friend and he took flight into the trees.
"Seriously, Laurel?" Gran said.
"I'm sorry! I'm so sorry. Fucking pollen. You know that. I couldn't help it."
"Language," Gran said. "Do you know what that was? That was a white-winged tern. A new addition to our life list. I never expected to see one out here, on a random day of all things. But there it was. You'd think I'd have learned by now — birds always surprise you." She leaned back and looked at her camera. "I heard a rumor there was one around here yesterday, but to actually see it ..." She trailed off as she pulled out her phone to alert her other bird people.
"His black-and-white head." I marveled at it. "It was gorgeous." I tipped toward Gran and stretched out my legs. I held my tiny digital screen out to her. "See him — I got a pretty clear shot. Most of them are blurry from him getting spooked by my seasonal curse. But a few are good."
None were really good enough to help me be crowned Fauna's Junior Nature Photographer national champion, fuck it all. But, even so. A new bird for the life list was something. As Brian Michael Warbley says, "A bird that you've seen is worth ten in a book."
"He is stunning." She slipped her phone back into the pocket of her vest and reached over and gave me a shove. "I'm glad I got to see him with you. I gotta say, he is in the top ten on my life list with the snowy owl and king eider I saw in Greenland. Sisimiut also had the northern lights! Superb. One day, kid. Just you wait. We'll go and the aurora will knock your socks off. No winter allergies in Greenland." She grinned. "Want to go to Eat N' Park?" she said.
"I'm at work."
"But Jerry isn't here." Gran grinned.
"How do you know that?" I said.
"I have my ways. Come on. You know you do way more hours here than you are required anyway. What's thirty mere minutes with your old grandma?"
"I guess I could go for a cinnamon bun."
"That's my girl," Gran said.
Gran's house sat conveniently at the edge of Jenkins Wood. We slipped into Gran's tiny hybrid and she drove us to the diner. Since we'd spotted a new life list bird, Gran talked me into fancy chocolate waffles with fruit and let me have bacon to celebrate. Gran was a vegetarian verging on vegan, but she was weak in the face of breakfast.
"How goes school?" she asked.
"Fine," I said. "I'm hardly there this semester. Academic classes were stacked in the fall and winter, so these last few weeks I'm mostly Birdscouting for co-op."
"Get any good shots for the contest?" she said.
"Yeah, I guess." I shifted in my seat. "I had some herons, but ..." I trailed off.
"Herons are good luck. Messenger birds. They bring good omens."
"You say that about all birds."
"Not cormorants. They work for the devil."
"Stop it." I laughed.
Gran shrugged. "Tradition. What can I say?"
"Everyone is going to submit herons or warblers," I said, thinking of Risa. "I need something different. Something extraordinary."
"All birds are extraordinary. Like people. You know that. You know what a group of warblers is called? A confusion. A confusion of warblers. Isn't that remarkable?"
I grunted. I had several memory cards and two extra hard drives full of photographic evidence that some confusions were pretty fucking boring. At least when I tried to capture their image.
Gran paid our bill and drove me back to co-op. She dropped me off with barely a goodbye, because her birder friends had caught wind of her find, and they were meeting up again to try to see the elusive white-winged tern.
"Good luck," I said. "Remember what Warbley says. 'Birds come not just to those who watch, but those who wait.'"
"Yes, yes. I think I've heard you quote him a time or forty. Make great art. You have a Fauna family legacy to protect," Gran said, holding my camera out of the window of her car. "And text me if you see the tern again." She sped off, practically leaving me in the dust. I grinned to myself, looking at my pictures. None were entry-worthy, but the appearance of something rare made me feel that the perfect shot was just around the corner.
FIELD JOURNAL ENTRY APRIL 30
"You know, Brian Michael Warbley won first place in the Fauna contest when he was a high school junior," I said to Sophie, who hadn't cared about Brian Michael Warbley since we'd become best friends in second grade.
"Uh-huh," she said, rinsing her brushes in the basement sink.
I swung my legs against the counter where I sat waiting for her. I watched the glitter in her halter dress glisten in the slanting sunlight through the small window.
"His new book, Warbley's Birding Bests, highlights some of his early work. It's terrible. Allegedly this is a picture of a Kirtland's warbler" — I held up the book to the back of her head — "but it's so grainy you can't tell."
"Yup," she said, banging the bottom of a can.
"Here is the only shot of a phoenix rising from its own ashes, naked and without its flaming feathers. This really started his career," I said, closing the book.
"I would imagine. One could say it elevated him to mythic status." She turned around and grinned.
"So you were listening."
"I always listen, bird nerd. Come outside."
I followed Soph up her basements steps and out into the yard. She needed to draw me for her portfolio. There were a lot of sketches of me throughout the years. I still had one that won third prize in the fourth-grade art show. That was back in the day when she could still convince me to match her signature look, involving dresses and braids.
"Why can't we do this indoors?" I said. I swatted at a mosquito. It was early for them, and this concerned me for my summer in the woods.
"Better light out here," she said. "Early light is best."
"Truth," I said.
Sophie sketched me in silence for a few minutes. I fiddled with my camera settings. I was allowed to move when being sketched, but not much.
"Does Ms. Rizzo ever wonder why you draw the same person over and over?" I asked.
"No, a lot of people have go-to models for their assignments. I change your hair occasionally to make it seem more legit."
"Oh, you should sketch Risa from co-op," I said. "Her hair is always amazing."
Sophie looked up at me. "Risa? You mean Risa Risa? Person who allegedly ruined your setup last year and caused a ruinous Fauna debacle that made you cry?"
I looked back down at the camera. "Well, yes, technically. But she has this great new look."
"Hmm," she said. "Well, if you want to ask her for me, I would consider it."
"That's probably not going to happen."
"Yeah, I figured." She held up her sketch. "This is super rough."
"I'm usually sitting here for an hour or more. This is what you can do in fifteen minutes?" It really looked like me. Better, actually. Less rumpled. "It's like I can actually see your progress. The last time you did this, my legs were strangely elongated."
"It's the same with your pictures, you know. They used to be all blurred Kirtland's warblers, and now they are more 'fledgling first flights' and all. With real live baby birds and everything."
"You are just saying that," I said.
"I am incapable of lying," she said.
That was true. Sophie was honest to a fault. It helped her portraiture. Maybe my cargo pants and recently laundered "Mother Flockers" shirt were more prim than I imagined.
"You at the art center today?" I asked.
"Nope. Elder care. It's art therapy day. I think we are going to make flowers out of recycled water bottles."
"Awesome," I said.
"And you are going to admire the hair of your nemesis," she said.
I shrugged. "I'm only human," I said. I put my camera in its case and shoved it next to Warbley's newest book. "You know, in the last chapter of Birding Bests, Warbley reminds us —"
"Oh, do save it for later. I like to spread out my Warbley wisdom so that my heart doesn't just overload."
I gave her my "to love me is to love Warbley, deal with it" face. She threw her "I seriously don't give a shit about the bird guy" back.
"Have fun at co-op," she said.
"It's for the birds. HA! Get it, because I said ..."
"Seriously, shut up," she said.
I clapped her on the back and hopped onto my bike that waited for me on the side of her house. It was going to be a great day. I'd show Ranger Jerry the new Warbley book. At least he'd care.
Or pretend to, anyway.
FIELD JOURNAL ENTRY MAY 1
Mom was crying in the kitchen.
Must be Thursday, I thought.
"Want some toast? It's crunchy and delicious!" I said out loud. Sometimes I could lift Mom out of a funk by the sheer force of relentless optimism.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Confusion of Laurel Graham"
Copyright © 2019 Adrienne Kisner.
Excerpted by permission of Feiwel and Friends.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
About the Author,