Birdsong

Authored by Katya Balen
Illustrated by Richard Johnson
Published by Barrington Stoke

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If I were to try and provide an ‘in a nutshell’, summary sentence for this book, I might just as well be describing any number of other books that skilfully trade in shared themes. Let’s see if that’s true.

Birdsong is a beautifully written, deeply moving book that explores trauma, burgeoning friendship, guilt, recovery, nature and love.

I can think of quite a number of books that meet this description. How should I distinguish this very, very special book? It helps no end that Katya Balen has already established herself as a formidable novelist. As October, October continues to accumulate richly deserved plaudits and awards, we can now appreciate Balen’s first novella.  At the time of writing, I have read it four times. Now, if you could see my pile of books waiting to be read, and if you can appreciate the sweet angst those piles cause me, you’d understand that this speaks volumes.

I am not going to spoil a single line of this book. Why wouldn’t you read it? It is eighty-four pages of carefully spaced delicately layered writing.  You have the time for this. Make the space.

It takes music and the wonderful feelings music can conjure as just one theme.  But it’s more complex than that, painful at times. Its layers add swathes of feeling that move us this way and that on an enthralling, driving emotional journey.  Alongside music, there’s the poetry of Balen’s expert crafting.  Word by word, line by line, we’re offered shifting kinds of pain and beauty. And emerging from this, there was the sense of something almost cinematic at play.  In the same way a great piece of music or an especially stirring sequence in film can threaten to overwhelm you, Birdsong fills you to the brim and threatens to spill over.

Need I say more?  I am in danger of disappearing into some kind of embarrassing reverie.  Let me get practical.  Those four reads point to a very pragmatic reason for this being an essential addition to either your class library, your read aloud diet, or your units of study. Like the best poetry, the best short stories, this novella offers that wonderful gift of a special kind of completeness achieved relatively swiftly.  A reading experience – shared or alone – that shows the world anew once again in a compressed space of time.  I don’t think there is a better way to experience the written word.

Another practical note.  As beautiful as the writing is, as skilfully layered as successive chapters are, this is not a book to place under the magnifying glass or the toffee hammer of over-analysis or heavy-handed comprehension work.  Let its inevitable influences enrich your children’s thinking and writing without coercion.  It’s not needed. Bask in its excellence. Share in its gifts.

Birdsong needs to be distinguished in some way from those other books, riffing on similar themes. It’s utterly singular and a triumph.

Please note, this review is based on a preview copy without Richard Johnson’s already acclaimed illustrations.

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