Bird, by Angela Johnson
From the first page of Bird:
Then water poured in overhead faster than it ran under the door. By the time I could see the lights of the farmhouse across the field shining in the dark, I was soaked. All I could think about was when I'd be dry again. I didn't think I ever would be. I even started to think I probably had never been dry or happy anytime in my whole life. Being cold and wet can sure make you feel older than thirteen.
Thirteen-year-old Bird didn't run away, exactly. She left home, yes, and she left home without her mother—but none of this was about leaving Cleveland forever. It was about going to Alabama to convince her stepfather to come back home.
When she gets there, though, she finds that she can't approach him.
So she holes up in a shed and watches from afar; watches him interact with his family, especially his nephew. She gets to know the nephew. She gets to know more people in town. And slowly, she makes peace with her loss and begins to understand just how complicated family—and life—can be.
Bird is quiet and lovely; if I hadn't already known that Johnson was a poet, I'd have assumed it from her prose. It reads matter-of-fact on the surface, but the emotions underneath are deep and sad and layered and complex:
I used to hear stories about why people ran away. Mine wasn't scary like theirs.
No broken bones or smashed faces ever happened to me that I didn't give to myself.
I had food and clothes. I had my mom. I had Cecil.
No broken bones for me, so home must not have been bad.
The chimes start swinging in the wind.
No broken bones.
While Bird is the title character and the story very much centers her, it's a story told by three different narrators: Bird, Ethan, and Jay. Ethan is the nephew, the boy who lives the farmhouse, a boy who has been sick for a long time and is now is on the upswing; Jay watches Ethan at church to see if he can see signs of his dead brother in the boy who carries his heart in his chest.
So, yes. It's about loss and grief and death—death of people, death of relationships—but it's also about life and love and joy and friendship:
Googy and me got to be best friends when we were both sent to the principal's office in kindergarten for drinking all the chocolate milks for the class lunches. We hid in the kindergarten bathrooms and drank milk till we were both sick.
I threw up in the office.
In sympathy, Googy threw up on the principal.
It's about trust:
I hope nobody tells on me. But of someone does, I don't think it would be the boy from the farm family—even though I know he sees me. He sees me all the time now. He's scared to come over and say hi and I'm scared to go over and say thanks for not telling your parents I'm living out here in your shed.
We get along. That's the way it is.
And it's about doing right by people:
"You could get in trouble bringing me food and stuff."
"You could, though, 'cause I'm a runaway."
"It's okay. I don't think my parents would want you to starve and be cold just because you're a runaway."
It's a super-short, entirely worthwhile read. Don't miss it.