The Grade 6 experience is vast in the sense that kids can be anywhere on the innocence spectrum. Some are still playing with toys and seeing the world through rose-coloured glasses while others are coming up against the first hit of puberty and diving headfirst into the messiness of adolescence. This range of difference accounts for the variety of subject matter and tone in books featuring characters in upper-elementary or junior-high school.
The Theory of Hummingbirds is a gentle, hopeful, and wholly innocent portrayal of a sixth-grade girl dealing with being different. Alba was born with talipes equinovarus, or clubfoot – a condition that author Michelle Kadarusman also experienced as a child. Alba’s case is severe, requiring surgery in kindergarten and again in Grade 6. When the novel opens, she is recovering from her final surgery and is determined to run a two-kilometre race that takes place just days after the removal of her cast.
Alba uses several coping techniques to deal with her physical challenges. She is deeply invested in hummingbirds and sees them as an encouraging metaphor for her own life. “Hummingbirds don’t sit around moaning about their tiny feet and the fact that they can’t walk,” she says. Alba calls her clubfoot Cleo, viewing it with compassion and kindness rather than resentment and self-pity. Support comes from her best friend Levi, who spends recess indoors with her because of his serious asthma.
While Alba has to deal with some isolation from other peers, she isn’t bullied. “The kids at school aren’t mean to me. It’s not like in the movies where the limping girl gets teased all the time.” Is this bully-free existence unrealistic? Kids who get teased for being different or for trying to step outside of the expectations of their peers will probably think so. But it’s also positive to see a character undergoing hardship that isn’t made worse by mean and insensitive classmates.
In addition to Alba’s rather charmed experience, there are other elements that make The Theory of Hummingbirds read younger, or place it into the “whimsical realism” category for older readers. In the mode of Jeanne Birdsall and Natalie Lloyd, Kadarusman makes some narrative choices that favour poeticism and poignancy over realism. For instance, Alba meets a fast-talking, coffee-drinking second grader at a bird sanctuary who encourages her to whisper her troubles into a handkerchief so she can wash away her bad feelings. It’s sweet, but borderline artificial.
Alba and Levi also get it into their heads that their school librarian is time travelling through a wormhole in her office during lunch hour. Their obsession with this seeming “mystery” will likely cause some eye rolls from readers who quickly clue in to the truth (the librarian hasn’t discovered the theory of everything – she is meditating in her office closet).
The Theory of Hummingbirds is essentially a best-case scenario for kids dealing with differences. The negativity is fleeting and the trajectory of Alba’s journey is onward and upward. This isn’t a fault, but it will dictate the readership; the neat and tidy emotions and perfectly tied-up bow of the ending may frustrate some readers who face messier realities, but it may also inspire hope in those who want their fiction to lead by example.