To celebrate the release of Cynthia Toney’s debut novel, Bird Face, I have decided to publicly humiliate myself. [deep breath]
You see, Cynthia’s novel took me back to my junior high years. I don’t know about yours, but mine came with a lot of ups and downs. Academic ups and relational downs, mostly.
In 6th grade, I had to switch elementary schools because I was admitted into a gifted and talented program and they weren’t offering it at the school that was a block from my house. So in my final year of elementary school, I had to start all over. New school, new friends, new everything. And I looked like this:
No fashion sense, glasses, braces, and stick thin. AND I was in the gifted and talented program. *sigh*
The funny thing is that no matter how you end up looking, your junior high self-image tends to stick with you for quite a while. So while I ended up graduating from high school looking like this (and don’t ask how long it took me to get my hair to look like that)…
…I still felt like the 6th grade image of me. I was bird face and bird legs, and just like Wendy Robichaud, the main character of Cynthia Toney’s most excellent novel, my best friend was drop-dead gorgeous. She was even voted Most Beautiful our senior year of high school. And just like Wendy, I was both happy for her and jealous.
But the character from Bird Face that really resonated with me was John-Monster. A brainiac bully who made himself feel better by making others feel worse.
There was a boy in our gifted and talented program name Mike Long. He was smart, obviously, and a nice guy. We all liked him, but we all called him Mike Wide behind his back because the poor guy was very large. If his last name had been Smith or Thompson or something else, I wonder if things would have turned out differently. I don’t think any of us meant to be a John-Monster to him, but I’m sure at some point that we probably slipped and he heard what we called him. The thing is, we didn’t do it to be deliberately mean. At least, I didn’t. The long/wide comparison was just sitting there begging to be used, kinda like people would always call me Lisa Pizza and my husband Chris Piss growing up. It’s what kids do. And honestly, Mike was large enough that he would have been teased no matter what his last name was. Childhood obesity when I was growing up wasn’t what it is today, so a large kid really stood out.
I never saw Mike after 6th grade, but I heard he committed suicide less than two years later. A product of childhood teasing? I’m sure it played a part. And this is what reading Bird Face made me think of. While we all feel like a bird face at times, there’s a little John-Monster in all of us as well. Growing up is coming to the point where you don’t let others identify you. You decide who you’re going to be, and become the best person you can, like Wendy.
So I think Bird Face is important and that all tween girls and their parents must read this book. Let’s talk about real issues that kids face and confront them head-on. Unlike many Christian novels where everything must be clouds, smiles, and rainbows, this book is edgy in that it handles topics like bullying, self-image, eating disorders, and suicide in a gentle manner from a Christian worldview. And it’s non-preachy too. Read this book, is all I’m saying.
And to Mike Long and his family… I’m sorry. I remember your son for the great pictures he drew.
And now, dear readers, if you could go back to junior high and do one thing differently, what would it be?