by Tracy Mack
ISBN: 0439535905

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A Review of: Birdland
by Heather Birrell

Thirteen-year-old Jed and his best friend, skateboard wiz Flyer are filming a documentary film for their teacher Velly (Mr. Velasquez) who has asked them to represent their neighbourhood for a class assignment. They roam New York's East Village, taking in sights and landmarks both strange and familiar, and hanging out with Jamal the drummer, Melody the perpetually smiling, sixteen-year-old waitress, and Kiki, a mysterious homeless girl. The streets offer plenty of distractions and adventures, but what Jed really craves is a connection to his older brother Zeke, who recently died of insulin shock. With his family reeling from their loss, there is no comfort to be had at home, and when Flyer leaves town to visit his mother in San Francisco, Jed is left to his own devices with the video camera.
He becomes obsessed with Kiki, convinced, through one of Zeke's old notebooks, that his brother had some contact with her. When the waif-like, uncommunicative girl shows up at Jed's home, he offers her shelter inside one of the cavernous water towers perched at the top of his building. The next day Jed discovers the distraught Kiki cutting herself with a razor blade, and has no choice but to bring his Dad, a doctor, into the equation. They end up at the emergency room of a local hospital, having saved Kiki's life, where the rescue also precipitates some much needed emotional healing between the father and son. This reconciliation proves a very moving cathartic moment-a reassuring return (for both Jed and the reader) to some form of safety and normalcy within the family unit.
This is a story told in straightforward language, peppered with skateboarding terms and Zeke's minimalist jazz-inspired poems, yet it successfully conveys the very real complexities of family life and how they play out in the day-to-day of an adolescent. Its ultimate message concerns the curative power of art; Jed and his father complete the documentary, and the novel closes with a description of the project, a compendium of Zeke's poetry and Jed's images. Although Birdland's narrator is an adolescent, the language here, with its obvious pop culture references and slang, is at a level more suited to a younger reader-and will no doubt appeal to those with a romantic interest in NYC's vibrant street life.

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