Reviewed by Adriana White, MLIS MAEd, Librarian
"This is Nanette.
A little girl with a head full of birds."
And so begins the story of "A Head Full of Birds," translated (from Alexandra Garibal's original French text) into English by Vineet Lal. This picture book portrays a unique friendship between two children, one of whom is neurodivergent, and the other neurotypical.
Right away, the beautiful illustrations by Sibyelle Delacroix catch your eye. The pencil lines are soft and colorful, without becoming too overwhelming. Varying depths of shading make images pop off the page, especially when set against rainy and gray backgrounds. The prose is straightforward and easy to read, and the story moves at a good pace, with occasional rhymes and some great sensory details.
Our neurodivergent main character, Nanette, is not explicitly labeled as autistic in the text. But the summary of the book does describe a portrayal of "neurodiverse friendship," and Nanette is shown to have several autistic traits. Nanette, we're immediately told, "mixes ham into her fruit yogurt," stares at things like spider webs for unknown reasons, and sits and rocks and flaps her hands like butterflies.
This strange and abrupt introduction to Nanette definitely establishes her as a very different sort of child! Unfortunately, we don't really get a chance to see the world from her perspective. As a result, this introduction mostly serves to "other" Nanette, and makes it clear that this story was written primarily for neurotypical readers - and not as a mirror for autistic kids. The laundry list of Nanette's odd behaviors doesn't give us enough context or meaning. We don't know why she does the things that she does. (To put it another way, the story lacks what Noe Bartmess calls an "internal view" of autism.)
This isn't to say that the book has no redeeming qualities! It is beautifully illustrated, and there are certainly moments where the neurodiverse friendship at its center is allowed to shine.
After some jarring lines from school bullies - other children who call Nanette cruel words like "stupid" and "dull," and harshly repeat "she's so stupid!" over and over again - we are eventually introduced to the story's neurotypical main character, Noah. After being placed next to Nanette at the front of the class (as punishment for throwing paper airplanes), Noah attempts to distance himself from his odd classmate. However, after watching Nanette play in the water outside, he experiences a change of heart.
This change in Noah, while sudden and a little unexpected, does give us some wonderful interactions between the two main characters. When Noah allows himself to be completely open to sharing small moments with Nanette, the story soars. Readers are able to see the interactions between two children who are open to seeing the wonder of the world around them.
These are the kinds of moments that I definitely want to see more often in children's books.
Unfortunately, the story ends fairly soon after this, quite suddenly, with a simple affirmation of the friendship between Nanette and Noah. The book ends with a proclamation that "together, they look after the birds that nest in their heads." While Nanette did draw a few birds, and also made some origami cranes, I'm not quite sure of the significance of the book's title. Perhaps something was lost in translation, or maybe I'm just not good with metaphors (which is totally an autistic thing).
As a whole, I do have some mixed feelings about this book. As a neurodivergent reader, I truly wish that we could have spent some time seeing the world from Nanette's unique perspective. We get small peeks of this, as we're told that "Nanette doesn't want to move" out of a rainstorm. But we could have had so much more. We never really get a chance to understand and empathize with how Nanette experiences the world around her.
Additionally, it feels as if, in its attempt to show readers how different and unique Nanette is, the story almost unintentionally highlights the very traits that make her seem weird or "stupid" to others. Even if the intent of the book was to show us the point of view of a neurotypical protagonist learning to accept an autistic classmate, there are ways to share these kinds of stories and perspectives without running the risk of "othering" diverse characters.
In closing, I wouldn't be opposed to including this book in my library, as long as I had other books by neurodivergent authors to pair with it. I could see a good conversation coming from a compare and contrast activity. I would perhaps read this book alongside something like "Wiggles, Stomps, and Squeezes Calm My Jitters Down" by Lindsey Rowe Parker & Rebecca Burgess, or maybe "I Am Odd" by Benjamin Giroux & Roz McLean. Younger students could draw pictures of what characters saw in each book, while older students could examine the language used to describe the characters in each story.
Disclosure: A Novel Mind was provided with a free copy of the book for review purposes.
Adriana L. White is an autistic school librarian, a former special education teacher, and a key member of our team at A Novel Mind. She holds a Master’s degree in Education as well as an MLIS. For more of Adriana's writing on autism, neurodiversity, and education, visit her at adrianalwhite.com