There are books I read with my eyes leaking beginning to end. Counting by Sevens…Swallows and Amazons…The View From Saturday…Because of Winn Dixie…Orbiting Jupiter…. I don’t mean to say these books make me cry—that’s another category, the ones that make you ugly cry so you can’t read it outloud. Rather, these leaky-eye books are stories read through a watery prism from the first page on. I never sob or sniffle, I just wipe at my eyes with my sleeve for the entire length of the book. If I read them aloud to my kids when they were little, they commented. “Mommy, are you crying?” And I quite cheerfully could say, “Not exactly. This one just makes my eyes leak.”
It’s like the book fills my heart to such an extent—With what? Wonder? Beauty? Gratitude? Bittersweetness? Truth?—that something has to overflow. And that something is my eyes, I guess. I love many many books, but the eye leakers are in a special category unto themselves.
Alison McGhee’s Pablo and Birdy joined the list most recently. I knew from the first line.
“Ready Birdy?” Pablo said, and he held out his finger for her. “Up you go.”
This is the story of a boy named Pablo who washed up on the beach in an inflatable swimming pool as a baby. Birdy is the parrot who was found clinging to the ropes that held Pablo safe. The book opens as Pablo is turning ten. He is surrounded by the love of an eccentric group of islanders who try to protect him from the story of his past for which they have no answers. But that doesn’t mean Pablo doesn’t have questions.
Birdy is a flightless and voiceless parrot. She is lavender-feathered and mango-scented and the bond she has with her Pablo is a fierce one. Their relationship is largely responsible for my leaking eyes.
There are slapsticky funny moments as well as sad and worrisome moments in Pablo and Birdy. There’s an eclectic cast, human and not, including the Committee, a group of rag-tag island birds who comment on all of the goings-on. Also a pastry-stealing dog thread that can break your heart. And through it all, there is the mysterious myth of the seafaring parrot who knows and can reproduce all of the sounds of the world that have ever been made.
A strange wind blows in during the events of this novel. Island wisdom holds that “the winds of change mean fortune lost or fortune gained.” As Pablo says at the end, it’s not always easy to tell what has been lost and/or gained. That’s fundamentally what the story is about, I think—that elusive and/or—and as such, it is a beautiful one to press into the hands of kids you love.
Two of my nieces turn eleven this spring. They each bear a slight resemblance to Pablo in different ways—and they are loved just as fiercely by we, their “islanders.” There is still space in their heads, hearts, and lives for wonder and imagination, which is the only thing this book requires. I’ll even go as far as to say this book can restore wonder and imagination if it’s on the way out. They’re both getting a signed copy for their birthdays—shhhh don’t tell! I don’t know if their eyes will leak or not. But I’ve dreamt of reading it with each of them—leaky eyes and all—and I think they’ll love it.