Toronto children’s author and librarian Debora Pearson offers a child’s-eye view of the challenges of moving to a new place in My Words Flew Away like Birds. Pearson, who works with newcomer families daily as a librarian, is joined by Indian-Canadian illustrator Shrija Jain, and both creators draw on real-world experience to illuminate this topic.
In My Words Flew Away like Birds, a young girl narrates her journey to a new country as she copes with the unfamiliar language spoken there. While her mother tries to prepare her with key phrases like “It was nice to meet you,” the girl struggles to grasp the meaning of the “crickle-crackle mumble” of words coming from her school’s PA system, or the casual and quick talk that swirls around her. It isn’t until she successfully helps out another kid in trouble (using her tentative language skills) that the girl realizes her old words may have flown away, but new ones will take their place.
Pearson has written a collection of scenes that will prompt important discussions with young readers. Her text describes the gulf between the kinds of polite phrases we might read in a textbook and actual, useful fluency. Jain’s drawings are fun: cartoony black linework is complemented by digitally rendered colour that evokes watercolour. She is playful with the backgrounds, incorporating expressive, whimsical gestures and a warm spring palette to reflect the vivid inner life of a character who’s finding it hard to externalize her thoughts.
One puzzle, though, is the varied depiction of the titular birds: while they are the key metaphor of the book, their inconsistent appearance on the page doesn’t reflect the trajectory of the larger narrative. Another dubious choice is the use of large white text boxes, distractingly carved out of Jain’s lovely, curvy backgrounds, giving the impression of a hasty assemblage rather than a collaborative work.
The topic of the language barriers faced by newcomers is handled effectively. Though My Words Flew Away like Birds does not have a particularly strong narrative hook, its clarity and delicate handling of the theme will appeal to educators as well as many appreciative young readers.