By Monika Schroeder

Stone Arch Books (August 1, 2016)

Reviewed by Carol Baldwin

be-like-a-birdSeveral weeks ago I attended Highlights Foundation Summer Camp and I’m still reflecting on the material I learned. One of the keynote addresses was by Susan Campbell Bartoletti which I blogged about here. In this review I use some of Bartolett’s points to review Monika Schroeder‘s latest middle grade novel, Be Light Like a Bird.

Major Dramatic Question

According to Bartoletti, every book should have a MDQ—A Major Dramatic Question that can be answered yes or no.

In Be Light Like a Bird, Monika poses this dramatic question for Wren, the protagonist: Will she and her mother resolve her father’s death? The answer to that question drives many scenes and is raised again at the climax of the book.

Key Scenes

Bartoletti offered a working description of key scenes and even if you don’t use it as a writing formula yourself, it’s a helpful approach to analyze your work as well as other writers’ novels.

A Scene that Incites: Wren’s father’s plane crashes and his remains are never found.

We read, “After the search-and-rescue people called, there was an explosion in my brain, and a cloud appeared, spreading out over everything. The cloud pressed down on me like overstuffed down bedding, the kind you want to push away so you can breathe. Except there was nothing I could do to lift it. The cloud made all my thoughts seem as though they came through a fun-house mirror, like the one Dad and I had stood in front of at the county fair last year, laughing…It made it hard to think.

It was because of the cloud that I didn’t notice at first how much Ma had changed. I didn’t remember her often being angry before… (p. 9)”

The cloud over Wren and her mother’s anger trigger their reactions. Wren’s mother drags them from town to town in a seemingly random effort to escape their past. She refuses to talk about Wren’s father, leaving Wren angry, confused, and the two estranged from one another. They end up in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and for the third time within a few weeks, Wren starts attending a new school.

A Scene that Agitates: Wren’s new teacher asks the students to find a controversial topic for a class presentation. She mentions that the township plans to expand the landfill. In this snippet, we meet Theo, the dorky kid in class who is a loner, like Wren.

“They’ve already started to survey the area, I blurted out. “I saw it. It’s so sad!”
“There’s nothing wrong with it,” Carrie piped up. “My dad runs the landfill. They just need more space.”
I frowned. Why did I not know that about her?
“Who cares about that swamp anyway?” Carrie added.
“Pete’s Pond is not just a swamp,” I said quietly. In my mind I added, There’s actually a wetland surrounding the pond with very exciting bird life.
“Sounds like this is already controversial here in our classroom,” Mrs. Peters said with an encouraging smile. “Theo what do you think?”
Theo was the master of pauses. He didn’t seem to mind that a gigantic silence spread out, hovering in the middle of the conversation. He just sat there, thinking about an answer. “I wonder why we need that space to bury garbage,” he finally said. “The town hasn’t grown very much.”
Mrs. Peters gave us a big smile. “Looks like you’ve already figured out why this is an interesting issue.” She wrote our names and the topic on her chart.
After school Carrie and Victoria left the building together, giggling as if they had known each other forever, just like a pair of turkey hens.” (p. 62-3)

A Scene that Confuses and A Scene When the Character Faces Choices. Wren is at recess with Carrie and Victoria, the two girls who she hopes will like her. Wren has been doing Carrie’s math homework in an attempt to win her friendship. Victoria is reading through a quiz in Miss Magazine that determines if you’re compatible with a friend.

Victoria asks, “If you had to spend a week on a deserted island and could only take three things what would you take?”
“That’s easy,” Carrie said. “I’d take my gel pens, my journal, my pink sweater.”
“I’d take my photo album, my favorite quilt, and my pink jacket,” Victoria said.
If I had to spend a week on a deserted island, I would take matches so I could make a fire. I’d take my binoculars to observe birds or watch for a boat to come. I’d also need a pocket knife. But I knew I couldn’t say what I really thought.
“I would take…” I began slowly.
But Victoria was already reading the next question.  She looked at me, and when I didn’t finish my sentence she said, “Okay you can come back to that one.” Then she read the last question: “What is your favorite hobby?”
Carrie spit out her answer. “Playing tennis.”
Victoria nodded eagerly. “Mine is playing tennis too!”
They both looked at me. “What’s yours?”
I didn’t want them to roll their eyes when I said I liked watching birds. Maybe I should tell them I liked to read. That was also true and much safer. But before I could give an answer, the bell rang, and I was glad we had to go back to class. It was easier to avoid answering than to be true to myself. (p. 72-3)

A Scene that Confronts. Wren and Theo decide to collect signatures to petition the town to preserve Pete’s Pond. At lunch Carrie confronts her.

“I heard you’re exhibiting your bird photos at the library and collecting signatures for a petition against my dad’s landfill.”
“We’re just collecting signatures,” I said. “It’s not a big deal.” I was thinking about Ma and didn’t have any patience for Carrie’s hysterics.
“I can’t believe you’re doing this to me,” she said. “Making my dad out to be some evil destroyer of nature.”
“I’m not doing anything to you.” I looked at her and added, “Not everything is about you.” (p. 140-1)

A Scene that Shows Strength or Courage. (this is continued from the previous scene)

Carrie inhaled sharply and glared at me. “You probably just want to hurt my dad because you don’t have one.”
Suddenly the kids at the tables near grew quiet. Everyone was watching.
I didn’t know how Carrie had found out about my dad. I was mad at her for saying that, and at the same time, I was scared to what I felt the need to do next.
Then I heard Dad’s words again: You are braver than you think you are.
I slowly got up, not saying a word. But before I left, I paused and looked down at Carrie. My voice was calm when I said, “I don’t think I want to have anything to do with you anymore.” (p. 141)

A Scene that Resolves. Wren’s mother tells her daughter that after her husband died, she discovered that he was having an affair and this was why she has refused to talk about him. Wren is shocked, denies it, and decides to take a bus to Chicago to confront his girlfriend. Her mother finds Wren walking along a road holding a dead dog she wants to return to its owner.

“Oh, baby,” Ma said. “I’m so glad I found you.”
“I was going to Chicago,” I said. “I wanted to talk to that woman. I don’t believe what you said about her. I don’t want to think of Dad having done something like that. I just don’t want to.” Suddenly there wasn’t enough space inside my chest and I could only take small breaths. “And now… now I have to tell these people that their dog died. But I can’t do it. I can’t. It’s too sad.”
“You don’t have to go to Chicago,” Ma said, holding my shoulders. “And I’ll go with you to meet Corey’s owner.”
[Wren asks her mother why she hadn’t told her about the affair and hears her mother’s explanation.]
…”Oh, Wren, I’ve made so many mistakes. I hope you can forgive me.”
I was startled for a moment. No one had ever asked me for forgiveness. I looked up at her. “Of course I’ll forgive you. But it’s still so hard to believe that Dad did this. I don’t how to…how to…”
“I know, Ma said. “It means we have to forgive him for what he did and mourn him. I don’t know how to do that by myself either. But maybe we can do it together.”
I fell into her arms, and Ma held me tight as I buried myself in her jacket. I could feel her lips on my hair. We stayed like that for a while, and I felt good and warm.
When I looked up at her, Ma gently pushed a strand of hair from my forehead. “Come on, baby. We’ll bring Cory home.” (p. 211-213)

Although this isn’t the end, you can see how the MDQ has been raised and answered. I think both girls and boys will enjoy this middle grade contemporary novel.


CAROL BALDWIN is a contributing editor to LitChat. Read her complete bio here.