Brown, Jaye Robin. The Meaning of Birds. Harper Teen, 2019. 367p. ISBN: 9780062824448. $10.99. HS OT ***
Jess has struggled with anger issues most of her life, but things change when she meets Vivi in her sophomore year. The two girls quickly fall in love, and Vivi challenges Jess to explore her passion for art and to express her anger in more meaningful and creative ways. But Jess’s world is once again turned upside down when Vivi dies suddenly in their senior year—destroying the future they had imagined together. Overcome by grief, Jess pushes everyone away. But as she immerses herself in a work-study program, she begins to piece herself back together and imagine a new future for herself.
The Meaning of Birds is a heartbreaking story of first love and grief. Dual timelines show us Jess & Vivi’s love story, juxtaposed with Jess’s grief over losing Vivi two years later. The combination of happiness and first love opposite heartbreak and grief is moving—this book is sure to leave many readers in tears. It is important to note that the death of a queer character can be very upsetting or triggering for some readers, though the author makes it clear that Vivi has died as a result of an illness, not anything to do with her queerness. This is a #OwnVoices queer book; Vivi is white and Jess is half-Latina, half white. There are other supporting queer and POC characters.
There is nothing beyond kissing/making out portrayed on the page. In several scenes between the characters, Jess pressures or tries to convince Vivi to have sex before Vivi is ready. These somewhat coercive/pressuring comments are concerning and may make some readers uncomfortable. This book still has other qualities that make it a valuable contribution to a YA collection, but when recommending it to teen readers, I would strongly suggest pairing it with a book that more clearly discusses consent and respectful & healthy teen relationships. There are some comments of homophobia, transphobia, ace/arophobia, and fat shaming, as well as mentions of drug and alcohol use.
Jaye Robin Brown does a superb job of balancing grief with hope, and reminding readers that life can continue in the wake of tragedy. Jess’s art becomes too painful of a reminder of Vivi, but after beginning a work-study blacksmith job, Jess begins to explore new passions and dreams. She develops new friendships & mentorships, and learns to dream up a new future for herself. I love that trade jobs and non-four-year college programs are portrayed as valid pathways in this novel. This heartbreaking novel with a hint of hope will find a loving home with fans of Like Water by Rebecca Podos, The Chaos of Standing Still by Jessica Brody, or The Beauty that Remains by Ashley Woodfolk.
–Ari Nussbaum, Hayward Public Library