Author: Emily X. R. Pan
Genre: Contemporary, magical realism
Age Range: 13+
Published: By Little, Brown Books for Young Readers on March 20th, 2018
Content Warning: Depression, suicide, death of a parent
Format I Read: Hardcover
Leigh Chen Sanders is absolutely certain about one thing: When her mother died by suicide, she turned into a bird.
Leigh, who is half Asian and half white, travels to Taiwan to meet her maternal grandparents for the first time. There, she is determined to find her mother, the bird. In her search, she winds up chasing after ghosts, uncovering family secrets, and forging a new relationship with her grandparents. And as she grieves, she must try to reconcile the fact that on the same day she kissed her best friend and longtime secret crush, Axel, her mother was taking her own life.
Alternating between real and magic, past and present, friendship and romance, hope and despair, this is a novel about finding oneself through family history, art, grief, and love.
I went into the book with very high expectations as I had heard only the best things about this book from all the contemporary fans in my circle. It also had received a lot of praise from critics and had generated some award buzz. I was personally drawn to it because of the #OwnVoices the Taiwanese-American rep and the magical aspects.
This book really hit me hard and elicited a strong emotional response from me. Leigh’s story of recovery from grief after her mother’s death broke me and healed me by the end. She was very passionate about her art despite the pressure from her dad and she gave me the courage to chase after my dreams too. I loved her complex relationship with her parents as well as the lovely bond she shared with her maternal grandparents that only grew as the story progressed. The family aspect was a very strong thread, dating back several generations, which I loved seeing because many Asian cultures place a lot of emphasis on family history. I loved every character as they grew and changed over the course of the narrative. They were presented to the reader with a nuanced eye that sketched a very realistic portrait of them all – both the good and the bad sides.
The plot was one of the most unique ones I’ve ever come across and I’m positive I’ll never pick up a book quite like this one. I was rooting for Leigh as she chased every shadow of the bird and I really liked how she went from denial to acceptance. The book took a lot of unexpected twists and turns. The way in which the story was told also worked in its favour. I enjoyed how we got a glimpse of both the past and present alternatively and how the author made things clearer to the reader in a slow, teasing way. The portrayal of grief, depression and suicide was so raw and honest that I had tears in my eyes for several parts of the story. The mental health aspects of the book were not only well-researched but also packed an emotional punch. I learnt a lot about depression, mental health medication, therapy and coping mechanisms through this masterful piece of fiction.
The setting was done so very well that I could almost smell the incense and taste the street food of Taiwan on my tongue. It was a wonderful experience to be so immersed in a contemporary setting and also add a few Mandarin/Taiwanese words to my vocabulary. The writing style stole my heart and made me wish the book was longer just so I could savour more from the talented powerhouse that is Emily Pan. She has definitely become an auto-buy author for me after putting out such a strong debut.
I highly encourage you to pick this book up at some point in your life because it has made an everlasting impression on me and I feel like everyone can learn a lot from this. For the music, switch between some urban ambient sounds and East Asian temple music. This book has so many descriptions to make you drool, so make sure to grab your favourite Asian food before you start reading.
Have you read this book yet? Did you know it has got both the Walter and APALA Honor Award? What are some of your favourite mental health books? Let’s discuss in the comments section below!