Let me start by saying that Angela Johnson is one of my favorite authors for children and teens. She’s written picture books and poetry books, as well as many novels that cross over between the children’s and young adult sections of the library. Which means that whenever I’m called in to do some emergency booktalking for a children’s class, I usually pick something by Angela Johnson to share. Her writing style is beautiful and yet simple, poetic and yet accessible. I’ve booktalked several of her books over the years, including Heaven, Looking For Red, and Bird, and they’ve all been very popular with kids and teens.
I’ll also mention that this booktalk uses a stylistic choice that I’ve adapted over the years, that of using lists and repetition. Sometimes it makes things easier for me to memorize a booktalk if it includes rhythms and patterns (“a family that … a family that … a family that”). I think that those rhythms and patterns also make the booktalk more enjoyable for the audience, and that it incorporates an aspect of storytelling into the booktalk. Pausing partway through a booktalk, acting like you’ve momentarily lost your place when you really haven’t, also adds a compelling quality to the booktalk. You can get excellent results with this technique, but use it sparingly for greater effect!
Bird has already lost two fathers. Her real father died when she was only two years old, so there’s no way he’s ever coming back. But her stepfather Cecil is a different story. Cecil lived with Bird and her mother for five years, until one day he left … and didn’t come back. Now Bird has this crazy idea that if she can find Cecil, she can get him to come back and make her family whole again. That’s why Bird ran away from home, leaving everything she knows behind in Ohio. That’s why she found her way to a farmhouse in Alabama, where she’s been living in a shed, watching the family that lives in the farmhouse. Cecil’s family. Bird watches the farmhouse very closely, because any day now Cecil should be coming by to visit.
And then … and then what, exactly? Can Bird just come out of hiding and say, “Here I am. We need you to come home now”? What if he says no? What if he doesn’t want to come home? For now, these questions are staying locked in Bird’s head, because Cecil hasn’t shown up yet. For now, she lives in the shed and watches the family in the farmhouse. A family that leaves the back door unlocked when they go out. A family that has so much food left over from Sunday breakfast that Bird can sneak into the house after they’ve gone and eat some of the pancakes and sausage they leave behind. Bird thinks that no one in the farmhouse knows she’s there, but she’s wrong. The boy, Ethan, has seen her leaving the shed at night, and he’s noticed the food disappearing. Ethan doesn’t know who she is, or why she’s there, or even that her name is Bird. But that’s just because he hasn’t met her yet.