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Contemporary Realistic Fiction, Family, Friendship, Middle Grade Readers, Self-Image/Self-Esteem

WILD BIRD by Wendelin Van Draanen

I picked up Wild Bird because it is written by one of my favorite authors for middle grade readers–Wendelin Van Draanen. The Wild Bird of the title is 14-year-old Wren Clemmens. When we initially meet Wren she is stoned and being woken by professional Youth Transporters. We follow this chaotic, emotional scene as Wren is accompanied by the Transporters to a wilderness therapy camp in the deserts of Utah. She discovers she is to remain there for eight weeks. The rest of the story alternates between Wren’s current experience in the desert and her flashbacks as she recalls incidents, behavior and choices that have led to this particular situation.

The plot, itself, is predictable (not necessarily a bad thing): Wren is angry at being sent away, hates the wilderness camp and everyone in it, through their program and guidance she comes to a better understanding and realization of how her choices have brought her to this point and how she wants to move forward in her life.

What saves Wild Bird from being a total eye-roller is the character of Wren, herself. Her thoughts, emotions and behavior are raw and honest. Her character points out ‘therapy-speak’ when it’s beginning to feel overused by some of the adults which keeps the narrative from becoming one long mental health/addiction treatment commercial. Are Wren’s insights and realizations realistic, given her age and experience? I think that’s debatable.  I will say that all of her insights into herself and her family are smart and valid and conceivable within the context of her experience at the wilderness camp.

I was pleased that the wilderness camp was presented as a truly fiduciary program with adults who were knowledgeable about the developmental phases the teenagers were in, as well as respectful and caring of them as individuals. Did I think some of the activities and tasks were slightly ridiculous? Yeah, I did. But I also recognized that they worked effectively as a device to move Wren through her journey. Regardless of the plausible/implausible nature of some of the elements in the story, Van Draanen’s strength is creating absolutely believably teenage characters–particularly girls–who have the ability to discover their own positive self-image. Wren is no exception to this tradition. You feel her pain as she comes face to face with the issues that originally led to her choosing alcohol, drugs and risky behavior to avoid them. You exalt with her as she discovers her own capacity for achievement and happiness. The other thing Van Draanen does with remarkable skill is to avoid judgment in her language surrounding both the wilderness camp and Wren’s behavioral choices. Allowing the reader space and tacit permission to travel Wren’s path with compassion as opposed to judgment is the key to experiencing Wren’s growth without cynicism.

Wild Bird is worthwhile reading choice for a middle grade reader interested in exploring a teen’s redirection to a constructive path from which to navigate hard struggles and the way to embrace her own power and control in situations where it feels like she has none. It probably will not make a good read-aloud choice for the simple reason that, in her flashbacks, Wren details the drinking, drug use and shoplifting that led to her parents’ decision to send her to the Utah program. None of the descriptions are graphically inappropriate, but neither are they camouflaged by euphemistic language. If you enjoyed Van Draanen’s The Running Dream then you might enjoy Wild Bird. Although the characters and plot situations are very different, their stories share qualities of empowerment and inspiration.

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