Twelve-year-old Charlie, the second of four children, is struggling with his journalist father’s hospitalization, the result of a brain injury in Afghanistan. Charlie, who is autistic, remembers how therapists worked to help him communicate, but now his single father and grandmother must travel from San Diego, California, to Washington, D.C., for specialized therapy. Charlie misses his father, with whom he has a special connection through their mutual love of birds, and as the household descends into chaos without Dad or Gram, he withdraws to protect himself. But when his boy-crazy older sister, Davis, plots escape – a plan that goes almost tragically awry – Charlie, Davis, and their twin younger brothers end up on an unconventional cross-country trip with Ludmila, a young Eastern European woman with a mysterious past who has recently come into their lives. Charlie insists that, along the way, they track down a list of birds in the belief that seeing these birds (some of which are extinct) will lead Dad to recover.
Debut novelist Sally J. Pla has drawn her autistic protagonist from her son’s and her own experiences on the spectrum. Lovingly written, with illustrations by Julie McLaughlin, this novel for middle grade readers offers a sense of place that spans the United States from high-tech San Diego to the bright lights and seedy reality of Las Vegas, from the starry skies viewed from a Wyoming mountaintop to the flat expanse of the Great Plains and the murky lushness of a Virginia wildlife preserve. Charlie’s unique voice and perspective enrich the story; his voice is preternaturally adult, consistent with his life of quiet observation and tendency to interact best with those much older rather than with peers. In drawing out Ludmila, who has been reluctant to tell her story and to reveal her connection to his father, he helps her to heal and discovers, for himself and his siblings, a kindred soul in the experience of war’s destruction. While it has an autistic protagonist, this is not a book “about” autism. Rather, through Charlie’s observations of the birds, his family, and society, the novel explores how war affects the young people touched by it, and how diverse experiences, talents, and perspectives can draw us closer and help us heal from trauma.