Summer is nearly over. Sure, it’s kind of sad to see those lazy, crazy days end, but Fall and a new school year bring the promise of crisp weather, new friends, and exciting new subjects to learn. And new books, too! Book groups and book clubs and discussions about plot and character and plain, old reading enjoyment. ReaderKidZ is kicking off the school year with a new middle grade novel for our times …
In “Be Light Like a Bird” by Monika Schröder, 12-year-old Wren is faced not only with the loss of her father, but with a mother who is so wrapped up in her own anger and grief that she leaves her daughter to cope with the terrible burden largely on her own. As her mother erratically moves them from one town to another, picking up jobs and boyfriends at every stop, and dropping them again when they move on, Wren is forced to bring order to their chaotic life. Like so many children who are having to face scary and uncertain situations, both in this country and around the world, Wren grows up quickly. New schools, mean-spirited girls, a fragile home life – Wren copes with the hand she’s been dealt with courage and determination. Her friendship with Theo, a boy in her class who has suffered his own loss, comes as a respite to them both. Together, they fight to preserve a local pond teeming with birds and wildlife, and in the process, forge strong and lasting bonds for themselves and within the town Wren will finally call home. It’s a journey without frills but with tremendous heart. Young readers who may have felt a tremor in their own lives will take solace in getting to know a girl who manages to fight for what she needs in spite of all odds.
We talked to the author about how she wrote such a powerful story and what influences in her own life may have affected the telling of Wren’s story.
ReaderKidZ: I love middle grade novels. I’ve noticed a trend in recent years of portraying a young girl (usually) who’s facing a family crisis with pluck and grit and a happy ending. While I believe in positive endings for children, these books often strike me as unrealistic and ultimately not helpful to young readers who may be facing similar circumstances. Your book doesn’t do that. Wren’s father has died, her situation is dire, and out of her own grief her mother is acting irresponsibly – the way too many parents do. While Wren makes the best of things, she comes across as real. I found myself believing in her. How did you do this? Was it an unconscious act or did you set out to write it that way?
MS: I am glad that Wren seems like an authentic character to you. I was hoping to create a girl with a deep emotional problem who discovers strength within herself over the course of the story. From early on I knew that Wren’s conflict with Carrie and Victoria had to end with her staying true to her own beliefs. Then I wanted to develop her friendship with Theo in a way that first surprised her and then gave her the strength to get through the crisis with her mother. I also felt that her desperation in regards to her mother’s behavior made her a realistic character since kids cannot always figure out what makes adults behave in a certain way.
ReaderKidZ: The minute I read a review of your book in which I learned that Wren goes around burying road kill after the death of her father, I was hooked. (I guess that’s why such plot twists are called “hooks.”) It works because her father’s body is never found so Wren can’t have the comfort of a decent burial, but how did you come up with this idea? Which came first – his death over the sea, or Wren’s fascination with road kill?
MS: The father’s death in the airplane came to me first. Then I tried to put myself in Wren’s position and felt that her desperation about the loss of her father and her mother’s distant behavior needed an equally desperate outlet. The idea with the roadkill came to me on my morning run in my North Carolina neighborhood where on any given day one may find small animals dead on the road. I often wonder what it says about people’s relationship to animals that so many of them are killed in this way and then left dead and unattended on the asphalt.
ReaderKidZ: Theo’s a great friend. His mother died, so he understands something about how Wren feels, but he responded very differently to his mother’s death. Both of their remaining parents respond differently to the loss of their spouse, too. You cover the topic from both angles. On what did you base your knowledge of how children might react to the death of a parent and adults to the loss of a spouse?
MS: I did not have a similar experience with the death of a parent or spouse. But I have been close to people whose loved ones died. When I was in school the father of my best friend died. My husband lost his mother and his brother within a month of one another. While writing the book I tried to put myself in the situation of a 12-year old girl whose father died, trying to feel the pain and how she might react.
ReaderKidZ: I love the way Wren grills her mother about where she was and who she’s dating. It’s the way many girls would act in her situation and it left me feeling as neglected as Wren felt. Same with her mother’s disclosure at the end that Wren’s father was not all he seemed. Yet, I didn’t finish the last page feeling depressed. I felt as if what I’d read was the way life happens and that facing up to it made Wren heroic without your even telling us she was. How much did Wren change in your mind over the course of writing the story? Did you set out to create a strong protagonist, or did she grow from the events she faced?
MS: In early drafts of the book the focus was on Wren’s trouble being the new girl in school and her fight to save the bird sanctuary. Over many revisions I felt that I hadn’t reached the core of who she was and what was hurting her. And then I suddenly knew, her father had died and her mother had dragged her to northern Michigan. From there I rebuilt the emotional arc of the novel, focusing on the grieving and her relationship to her mother
ReaderKidZ: I love the way Wren named the crow Joseph and has such a strong connection to nature and her father through birds. Also, the way Theo shares her awareness of the destruction of the natural world because of a development. Snooty Carrie called them “two crazy peas in a pod.” What was your model for this friendship?
MS: While teaching grade four for many years I have occasionally observed friendships between girls and boys. It was rare and, just as in the book, they often had to go through some mocking or bullying, but I did see those friendships and they helped me to imagine the relationship between Wren and Theo.
ReaderKidZ: What new books of yours can we look forward to reading in the future?
MS: I am working on two projects, a middle-grade mystery novel set in Calcutta 1832, and I have recently submitted a manuscript for a picture book about my dog, Frank, whom we adopted from the streets of India. In it Frank exchanges a series of letters with a dog-friend back in Delhi, describing his new, spoiled life in the US.
We look forward to reading both of those. Thanks for talking to us, Monika Schröder.