It’s 1968, and 8th grader Doug has just moved to the small town of Marysville, in upstate NY. He has no friends. He is living with his angry, abusive father, and a bully of an older brother, who, after only a few days in the new town, is already falling in with the wrong crowd. Doug doesn’t particularly like the idea of moving to this new town, or a house he calls “the dump,” especially since everyone in town already considers him a bad egg, or a “skinny thug” just like his Dad and brother. He struggles against being the bad kid that the police and most of his teachers assume him to be. Doug truly wants good things to happen, although he feels that if something good happens, then something bad will too; it’s as if he is always waiting for the other shoe to drop and remind him of his low place in the world. Doug finds an unlikely ally in the fiery Lil Spicer, whose father offers him a job delivering groceries. Doug begrudgingly takes the job because he has nothing else to do, but his life is forever altered when he wanders into the library and comes face-to-face with the plates of John James Audubon’s birds in a book under glass.
“I went over to the table to see how come it was the only lousy thing in the whole lousy room. And right away, I knew why. Underneath the glass was this book. A huge book. A huge, huge book. Its pages were longer than a goodsize baseball bat. I’m not lying. And on the whole page, there was only one picture. Of a bird. I couldn’t take my eyes off it.
He was all alone, and he looked like he was falling out of the sky and into this cold green sea. His wings were back, his tail feathers were back, and his neck was pulled around as if he was trying to turn but couldn’t. His eye was round and bright and afraid, and his beak was open a little bit, probably because he was trying to suck in some air before he crashed into the water. The sky around him was dark, like the air was too heavy to fly in. This bird was falling and there wasn’t a single thing in the world that cared at all. It was the most terrifying picture I had ever seen. The most beautiful. I leaned down onto the glass, close to the bird. I think I started to breathe a little bit more quickly, since the glass fogged up and I had to wipe the wet away.”
The power of the Audubon paintings causes an intellectual awakening in Doug. The local librarian starts teaching him ho to draw, and he discovers that the library is a safe haven from his terrible home life. Doug’s friendship with Lil is the driving force that helps him discover friendship and goodness all over the town. He finds the strength to endure an abusive father, the suspicions of a whole town, and even the tragic return of his oldest brother from Vietnam. Together they find inspiration in learning about the plates of John James Audubon’s birds, and have a hilarious adventure on a Broadway stage. There are many themes in this story, some devastating and others wildly funny, but ultimately the book is about the healing power of friendship and art. Review by Lizzy Healy