My Dad’s a Birdman

by David Almond; ill. by Polly Dunbar

Candlewick Press, 2008

128 pages

David Almond is something of a Renaissance author.  He does it all: plays, novels for adults, novels for teens, short stories.

Across these genres and age groups, he’s known for an eerie brand of supernatural realism that seamlessly blends the here-and-now with what is (or what might be?) beyond.

Having read–or, more accurately, been entranced by–a couple of his young-adult novels, I was very curious to see what he might do for a younger readership.  So off I went to my library for a copy of My Dad’s a Birdman, his first book for the tween crowd (it’s also a good read-aloud for elementary ages).

I was not disappointed.

Set in Almond’s native northeast England, this is the story of Lizzie and her dad Jackie, who are coping with the death of their mother and wife.

The Great Human Bird Competition, administered by a perceptive little man named Mr. Poop, is coming to their city, and Jackie wants desperately to enter.  His dumpling-making sister Doreen has other ideas, however, and enlists head teacher Mr. Mint to help her bring Jackie back down to earth.  It falls to Lizzie to manage the competing desires–and personalities–that are at play.

In some hands, this story would be a simple farce, thin but entertaining; others might make it something maudlin, a weepy tale of a family’s grief.  But Almond and illustrator Polly Dunbar have produced something much more subtle and complex.

Yes, it’s a funny book, but the humor is in the details, woven through the narrative like bright threads in a cloth: Auntie Doreen’s cannonball-like dumplings, the costumes and contraptions dreamed up by the contestants (and the names Mr. Poop gives them).

It’s also a heartbreaking story.  Jackie, overwhelmed by grief, has barely a fingerhold on reality; his daydreams hover on the edge of delusion.  Auntie Doreen is ready to claim custody of Lizzie, who is trying to parent her father through his crisis.

But, as so often happens in life and in books, inspiration comes from heartbreak.

This is where Lizzie shines.  Wise beyond her years, she joins her dad in his birdman quest because she knows it’s the only way to bring him back from the brink–and reclaim him as the father she needs.

In other words, she has the courage to fight for the survival of her family, instead of taking the path of least resistance and going to live a “normal” life with Auntie Doreen (no mean feat, given Doreen’s hurricane-force personality).  Along the way, Lizzie proves herself incredibly strong, smart, and insightful.

Not a bad role model for any young girl going through a crisis, whether it’s one of grief, friendship, identity, or just confidence.

When I first started reading My Dad’s a Birdman, I first thought, “It’s the next Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake!”  (I’ve since discovered that other reviewers had the same epiphany.)

And I wasn’t completely off-track.  Almond does have Dahl’s knack for blending the absurd, the magical, the gritty, and the everyday into one glorious, captivating story.  And Dunbar has a very Blake-like way of depicting the human form and capturing its energy.

This partnership, however, is more than Dahl-and-Blake warmed over.

Almond and Dunbar both bring to their art an elegance and poignancy that is often missing from Dahl and Blake’s books.  There is more poetry here, by far.

At its heart, in fact, this is a poetic book.  Almond’s lyric phrasing and trademark dusting of magic, Dunbar’s almost-musical illustrations, the themes of grief and love and aspiration–it all evokes William Blake, one of Almond’s great influences, as much as Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake.

No wonder it’s inspiring, as only good poetry can be.

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