Strange Birds: A Field Guide to Ruffling Feathers by Celia C. Peréz, 384 pp, RL 4
A Field Guide to Ruffling Feathers
Cover art by Shannon Wright
Review Copy from Kokila Books
There are so many amazing and wonderful things about Strange Birds: A Field Guide to Ruffling Feathers by Celia C. Peréz, author of one of my favorite books, The First Rule of Punk, I hope I can get them all into this review and do justice to this marvelous book. Ultimately, Peréz has written a story of friendship - how it begins, how (and why) bonds are created, and what those bonds mean. Within this story she has woven themes of social activism, institutional racism, socio-economic status, animal rights and how we make sense and deal with histories and legacies of wrongdoing today. And, as with her debut novel, Peréz shares a inspiration board and playlist for this book! Also, don't miss this post at Nerdy Book Club where Peréz shares the feelings, questions and images that inspired her to write this book, including the Radical Monarchs, an activism organization for girls of color dedicated to empowering young girls so they "stay rooted in their collective power, brilliance and leadership in order to make the world a more radical place."
Peréz begins her book with this quote from Stephen King's novella, The Body, "I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve." In 1986, Rob Reiner, along with King co-writing the screenplay, turned it into the movie, Stand By Me. I saw it the summer before my freshman year of college, and this story of four friends impacted me and inspired me to read the one and only work by King I've read to date. Peréz has done a stunning job taking inspiration from King's story, giving it a contemporary setting and story, best of all, making the main characters girls. Instead of an actual dead body, Lane, Cat, Aster and Ofelia's friendship solidifies around a "metaphorical dead body," as Aster calls it when Lane says they need a mission, a goal, like "the old movie where the four boys go on an adventure to see this body."
How twelve-year-olds Lane DiSanti, Aster Douglas, Catalina Garcia and Ofelia Castillo come together at the start of summer vacation in Sabal Palms, Florida is definitely one of my favorite moments in a book. Spending the summer with her grandmother while her parents negotiate their divorce, Lane is lonely and angry. After her grandmother gives her The Floras: A Handbook for Sabal Palms Girls, a guide for a Girl Scout-like organization founded by her great-great grandmother 100 years earlier, Lane is inspired to find friends by starting her own group. Art supplies in hand, she creates invitations and leaves them in places, like her favorite book in the library, to be found.
While Lane is the one who brings the girls together, it is Cat who gives them their "metaphorical dead body." The youngest of four girls, Cat's successful mother, and her older sisters, were all Floras. In fact, her mother was Miss Floras, an honor bestowed after a pagent-y competition that ends with the honor of wearing an ancient hat made from the feathers of over hunted birds, now protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. The girls learn all about this from Cat, who has secretly quit the Floras and donated all her brownie sales money to a local nature preserve. Cat, a birder herself, tried to get the Floras and their leader, a prim, pushy woman Cat compares to a male wild turkey, to retire the hat and stop ignoring the fact that birds were hunted to make it.
Aster, who has been home schooled by her grandfather, the first Black professor at Sabal Palms University, shares her knowledge of activism, and passion for French cooking, with the girls, who decide - with Cat's full support - to find a way for Cat to be heard, starting with stickers. Armed with an X-acto knife and a recipe for wheat paste and shrouded in black bandanas and hand-embroidered badges, made by Lane, the Ostentation of Others and Outsiders (a name chosen by Lane, who, like me, loves collective nouns) acts. Every step of the way, Ofelia, an overprotected child of older parents who immigrated from Cuba and speak of it so often she is tempted to ask them why they left, is taking notes. A burgeoning journalist, Ofelia is trying to write the piece that will win her a spot at the Qwerty Sholes summer program in New York City, despite the fact that her parents won't let her stay home alone.
Peréz adds depth to her story, layering institutional racism into the plot with the Wall, or Gray Kingbird Avenue, the invisible line dividing Sabal Palms - and Lane and Aster. Hiding in a cemetery for early Bahamian settlers after a almost getting caught stickering, Cat asks, "How do you make a wall that isn't even a real wall?" Aster answers,
Neglect, racism. My grandpa says the local government gives more money and resources to some areas than others because of who lives there. The west side of the Wall is where Black families settled. Not a coincidence that it's the area that's neglected . . . My grandpa says people find reasons and ways to oppress other people based on color and language and anything else that makes us different from one another. It's how the rich and powerful stay that way, by dividing people. And there aren't a lot of rich and powerful people on this side of the Wall.
Not only is this part of the plot, but the girls actually talk about it. Cat and Ofelia weigh in, and a discussion about being Cuban American and being seen for the color of your skin.
Peréz takes her characters to the edge of disaster and lets them decide how strong their commitment to their cause - and each other - is, culminating with and ending that feels just right. Pretty sure I was teary for all of the final chapter of Strange Birds: A Field Guide to Ruffling Feathers, and am definitely going to carry with me the final words from their end of summer ritual:
For vanishing fears, for courage.