Birdie and Me

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
Birdie and Me Book Poster Image
Intense story of orphans' search for family, acceptance.

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The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Occasional references to classics of music, literature, etc. such as Swan LakeGreen Eggs and Ham, Breakfast at Tiffany's, and the moment when the kids' uncle calls a school teacher "Nurse Ratched" (from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest). A school project involves the poet Elizabeth Bishop. Birdie loves fashion design and is thrilled with a library book about Alexander McQueen. One of Jack's school friends is obsessed with U.S. presidents, their families, and their pets. In a disastrous episode, Jack knows that you shouldn't put water on a grease fire, but her uncle doesn't and everything burns.

Positive Messages

Strong messages of family, friendship, acceptance, loyalty, sticking together, helping out -- and sticking around even when things have gone really badly. Also, accepting that by and large people are doing the best they can with what they've got, even if the results don't seem to reflect it. Birdie is a positive representation of a gender-nonconforming kid. Jack and Birdie's family is White. Krysten, a brainy classmate, is Black. Janet, another friend, presents as White. Janet's mom, who has multiple boyfriends, is described as darker skinned than Janet.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Just about all the characters make ill-advised choices that seem like a really good idea at the time, like when the kids decide to run away from their uncle and go back to Portland on the bus. Jack, now 12, and Birdie, 9, have never had much stability in their lives, but as a result are fiercely loyal to each other, supportive, and caring. Their late mom loved them and also suffered from mental illness, so some days were magical adventures and some spun out of control. Their uncle Carl, with whom they've been living, also loves them but is a hopeless flake who never shows up for school meetings, feeds them nothing but junk food, and gets caught up in one grandiose, doomed scheme after another. Their Uncle Patrick, with whom they wind up, has always had the thankless job of being the designated adult who cleans up the messes of his dysfunctional family -- and unexpectedly stands up for the kids when they are bullied by adults. Janet and Krysten, two of Jack's friends, offer wisdom and support, as does a librarian.


Boys beat up a kid in the bathroom and put his book in the toilet. They also put pink paint on his backpack. A well-meant effort to help out on a food truck results in the whole thing burning to the ground. One of the many boyfriends of a teen character's mom is loud and threatening.


One of Jack's friends is a girl whose mother is forever running off with boyfriends, who are usually abusive and unreliable. Birdie, a 9-year-old boy who likes to wear makeup and sparkly clothes, is asked whether he wants to be boyfriends with boys or girls, and replies that he doesn't want to be boyfriends with anybody. Uncle Carl keeps proposing to his girlfriend, Rosie, but she keeps turning him down because he's so unreliable.


Occasional "I swear to God," "screw you."


Scene-setting mentions of Cinnabons, Big Macs, etc.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Adult and teen characters smoke cigarettes. One adult named his late lamented bearded dragon "Marlboro."

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that J.M.M. Nuanez' Birdie and Me is a tale told by 12-year-old Jack (short for Jacqueline) about life with her 9-year-old brother, Birdie. She's been Birdie's primary caregiver and defender most of her life -- and he's never happier than when he's wearing glamorous clothes and makeup like Audrey Hepburn. Ten months ago their single mom, who suffered from mental illness and kept them in an exciting but unstable life, died, and since then they've been with their Uncle Carl, who feeds them lots of junk food but isn't much for school meetings. When they have to go live with their more stable Uncle Patrick instead, they run away. Birdie is beaten and bullied by boys at his school. Teen and adult characters smoke cigarettes. A teen character's mother is always off with one of her many, often abusive, boyfriends. In short, there's a lot going on here, with lots of characters trying to do their best, falling short, and sometimes trying again and doing better. 

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What's the story?

BIRDIE AND ME opens as 12-year-old Jack and her brother Birdie (their late mother named them after Jacqueline Kennedy and Lady Bird Johnson) are reluctantly packing up to go live with their Uncle Patrick in a small Northern California town. They've been living with their Uncle Carl, who feeds them junk food, lets them cut school, and (the cause of the trouble) fails to show up for meetings with Birdie's teacher. The teacher wants to discuss the fact that Birdie's fondness for sparkly clothes, eye shadow, and purple nail polish are getting him a lot of unwelcome attention at school. Patrick, on the other hand, seems to be the designated adult in the extended family, and Jack fears what will happen, as their lives have been getting steadily worse -- and people less accepting of Birdie -- since their mom died almost a year ago.

Is it any good?

There's a lot happening in this tale of two orphans trying to make their way in a world of deeply flawed, usually well-meaning, people in the wake of their loving but mentally unstable mom's death. Nine-year-old Birdie gets unwelcome attention because he favors sparkly clothes and purple makeup, and his 12-year-old sister, Jack, is his main protector. Their emotions and vulnerability as they navigate what's often been a volatile, senseless world in search of family and stability, plus the sympathetic adults and wisecracking kids who help, make Birdie and Me a relatable, thought-provoking read that's sometimes as overwhelming to the reader as it is to the characters. Here, the kids remember their mom and their life with her:

"'I hated it when she got upset. Because then she'd disappear and it didn't matter how many times it happened, I always wondered if she'd come out of her room again.'

"'She always came out, though,' says Birdie. 'And you always made really good grilled cheese and ramen and bean burritos when she was hiding in her room.'

"'But I didn't want to do that, Birdie. I wanted her to do that. I always wanted her not to disappear.'

"'I know,' he says. 'Me too.'"

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about stories about people -- like Birdie -- who go their own way and don't conform to what people expect of them. What other stories have you read with those kinds of characters? How does Birdie and Me compare?

  • Do you know any kids who had to go live with relatives or someone else when their parent died or became unable to care for them? How did their lives change? Was there anything you could do to help make things easier?

  • Have you ever gone for a balloon ride? What was it like? Did you like it?

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