In Katherine Paterson’s new middle grade novel, Birdie’s Bargain, 10-year-old Elizabeth “Birdie” Cunningham is sure that her dad’s third tour of duty overseas with the National Guard will end with his death. Birdie is dealing with a lot of complicated emotions for someone her age. Not only is she worried about her dad, but there’s six-month-old Billy to contend with — the little brother she never wanted and the reason her parents no longer pay enough attention to her.
Now they have given away her bicycle because the family is moving in with her Gran while her dad is deployed. Her new bedroom is the size of a closet, and she has had to leave all her friends and go to a new school where she doesn’t know anyone. Suddenly Birdie finds herself unable to depend upon the adults in her life, who keep telling her that everything will be all right. “Why did grown-ups lie all the time?” she wonders.
It’s all just too much. Luckily, she has her faith, grown over three summers at Bible Camp. But last year her new counselor talked less about kindness and more about hell. “He showed it on a flannel board,” she remembers. “He stuck on flannel people with wrong beliefs and then put the flannel flames of hell right on top of them. It was all just pieces of cloth, but still it was scary, and it made Birdie wonder if she believed right or not.” And so she decides to make a bargain with God: She will “love you and Jesus and be a witness in the world” if God will take care of her father in Iraq.
Unfortunately, the first person God places in her path is a difficult fellow fifth-grader who lives around the corner. Alice May — who prefers to be called by her Las Vegas stage name, “Alicia Marie” — is fierce and full of bravado. She brags about her outrageous exploits, keeps Birdie from making other friends, and orders her around shamelessly. Birdie longs to get away from her new “friend” but believes she first must witness to her about Jesus. After all, she made a bargain. But when she begins to suspect a darker side to Alice May’s homelife, she is uncertain what to do.
Paterson gives shout-outs to Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl, Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, and E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. But it’s Birdie’s English teacher’s suggestion of Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo that finally begins to offer her some peace. Reading about the loneliness of young Opal, the main character, who loses her mother but finds an extraordinary dog she names Winn-Dixie, “made her feel braver.” As Mr. Goldberg tells her, “Sometimes when life seems particularly hard, I just like to lose myself in a good book, don’t you?”
Countless readers have lost themselves in the good books of Katherine Paterson. Winner of two Newberry Medals and two National Book Awards, among many other prizes over nearly 50 years of publication, Paterson was named a Living Legend by the Library of Congress in 2000. Known for her unflinching portrayals of the emotional lives of children, Paterson has never shied away from tackling serious and controversial themes as a writer, and Birdie’s Bargain is no exception. As young Birdie struggles with jealousy, loss, anger, anxiety, and the trustworthiness of both God and man, Paterson allows her readers into the inmost thoughts of this conflicted and unhappy character.
When Birdie fears that bad things have happened because, as she tells Gran, “I didn’t pray right,” her grandmother reassures her: “Oh baby, there’s no wrong way to pray. And right now, I think the best way to pray is just to cry.” Birdie’s circumstances are not easily resolved, but Paterson offers hope as Birdie bravely begins to trust the people who love her most, no matter what.
[Read Chapter 16‘s 2014 interview with Katherine Paterson here.]
Tina Chambers has worked as a technical editor at an engineering firm and as an editorial assistant at Peachtree Publishers, where she worked on books by Erskine Caldwell, Will Campbell, and Ferrol Sams, to name a few. She lives in Chattanooga.
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