Birdspell by Valerie Sherrard is an emotional and honest novel that provides an opportunity to explore sources of stress and how we cope with the different situations. It offers readers a way to have difficult conversations through a fictional character who is relatable but safe. Birdspell reminds us that everyone we meet is having their own struggles, even if we can’t see them.
Each chapter offers a deeper glimpse into the life of Grade 6 student Corbin Hayes as he navigates two vastly different worlds: his public life and his life with his mother. Corbin sees everyone as “outsiders” and has been taught to keep his problems hidden. His absent father, sick mother, unforgiving landlords, and even teachers have all confirmed his beliefs. But when a classmate offers to give Corbin a talking bird, he starts to build relationships that he never imagined possible. By connecting with others, Corbin learns that even in the darkest moments of his life, there is magic to be found.
The book is an appropriate novel study for Junior and Intermediate grades, with links to the health and physical education curriculum (social-emotional learning skills and healthy living strands). Birdspell provides opportunities to discuss topics of mental health, healthy relationships, and coping skills through a relatable character. Readers can make connections through Corbin’s thoughts, emotions, and actions, and understand the impact these have on his everyday life. The novel gives readers a safe space to understand the connection between mental health and mental illness, and how to identify possible signs of a mental health issue. Each chapter offers natural pauses for readers to make judgments and draw conclusions about what might happen next, and how Corbin might react in each situation.
Teachers would benefit from reading Birdspell on their own or with their students. Educators will be moved by Corbin’s hidden struggle and his resiliency in the face of so many challenges. Students will be inspired by Corbin’s journey to escape the cage of his emotions and feel free to let others into his world. Overall, Birdspell is an impactful read, and would benefit Junior and Intermediate classrooms across the province.
Kate Foster is a member of Greater Essex County Occasional Teacher Local.