February 13, 2020
(+++) PRESSING ALL THE RIGHT BUTTONS
Birdie and Me. By J.M.M. Nuanez. Kathy Dawson Books. $16.99.
Book genres have long-established characteristics – in fact, that is much of what makes them genres. They have tropes, mandated character designs, expected relationships, and formulaic plot points that provide readers with a sense of comfort and familiarity within which authors can explore themes, some very new and others very old indeed. A first-time author of a book for preteens and young teenagers had better have a very good sense of which way the wind is blowing in age-focused genre novels if she is to entice a major publisher into taking a chance on her work. And in our current obsession with inclusiveness and political correctness, it boosts her chances of success if she is hyper-inclusive and hyper-politically correct.
And so we have J.M.M. Nuanez and her debut novel, Birdie and Me. It is formulaic to the nth degree, yet has a veneer of being so with-it, so in tune with contemporary societal concerns, so sensitive and well-meaning and caring, that it fits the latest requirements of its genre to perfection. The basic story is quite simple. A brother and sister bond more tightly after going through a series of harrowing experiences and learning the true meaning of “family.” The siblings are being raised by their mother (fathers are generally feckless or absent in books of this type), but she dies, and they are shuttled back and forth between two uncles with completely different personalities (another trope of this sort of book). The uncles are quirky and one-dimensional in completely opposite ways, one a kind of 21st-century “flower child” and one straitlaced. The siblings encounter standardized home-and-family challenges as well as ones involving school – including the inevitable bully – and eventually emerge as stronger, more-focused individuals who know they can always count on each other and on those who care about them, and will be able to handle whatever life throws at them in the future.
Described this way, the story of Birdie and Me is nothing but a mild rehash of innumerable plots that have defined preteen and young-teen “self-discovery” novels for decades. But it is more than that – because of how carefully Nuanez tunes the story into contemporary concerns about gender self-definition. Birdie is what is now called “gender non-conforming,” which means that (aside from his name) he wears traditionally feminine clothing, plus eye shadow and nail polish – all things that naturally attract the inevitable bullying. The “me” of the title is Birdie’s older sister, unnecessarily given the masculine name Jack (that lays things on a bit too thickly). So the standard preteen struggles of the siblings are seen entirely through the lens of gender self-definition. This is a one-dimensional way to view people, but no more unidimensional than having Uncle Carl be defined by his scattered and unstructured view of life and Uncle Patrick by his prescriptive and rather stern approach to things.
Nuanez is clearly aiming for Birdie and Me to be deemed “courageous” or at the very least “outspoken” in dealing with gender matters that have been swept under the proverbial rug for far too long. And she writes with firm control of the story and total sympathy for the title characters: it would not do to be even the slightest bit critical of these highly challenged young people, even when they try on several occasions to run away from “home” (really, from life). The inevitable question is for whom the novel is intended. Certainly unconventional families containing gender-uncertain or non-conforming children are the audience, but they make up a very small group. Estimates by psychologists suggest that about 0.6% of U.S. adults are non-conforming as to gender, although advocacy groups on one side of the issue claim “as many as” 12% of people may fit the category (depending on how the category is defined), while those on the other side have suggested a range of 0.005% to 0.014%. Perhaps a stronger hint of Nuanez’s target readership comes from a recent study in which 27% of California adolescents claimed to be non-conforming: Nuanez is a California native, and her book partakes strongly of sensibilities associated with the state’s most liberal (self-defined “progressive”) elements. So Birdie and Me seems destined for high praise as a “cause” book and an “important” counterbalance to the ranks of “exclusionary” books for ages 10 and up, which means ones in which central characters behave in accordance with societal expectations for their physical genders.
This is the kind of book that well-meaning educators assign to students in the target age range with the avowed aim of teaching that any and all versions of gender identity and family structure are equally valid and deserve equal respect. Since Birdie and Me follows a long-established story arc in terms of its events, differing only in some characteristics of its protagonists, it will certainly be easy for young readers to follow. Whether it will teach them universal tolerance and acceptance is an open question, however: Birdie is entirely defined by being gender non-conforming, never emerging as a whole person beyond that element; and much the same is true of Jack, who is also something of a cardboard character. The pervasive advocacy underlying Birdie and Me therefore flows from the notion that one’s self-defined gender is the entirety of what matters – which is just as much a simplification as the notion that adults are solely defined, as they are here, by their type and level of quirkiness.