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by Sonya Hartnett
Candlewick Press, 2002
Review by Su Terry on Aug 24th 2004

What the Birds See

            What the Birds See by Sonya Hartnett is an international award winning novel.  It is a taut suspense filled coming-of-age novel about a young Australian boy growing up in the aftermath of the disappearance of three children in his neighborhood. (The novel was inspired by real events.)

What the Birds See is set in a sleepy neighborhood in Australia in the year 1977. On an unusually warm afternoon, the Metford children (Veronica aged ten years, Zoe aged seven years, and Christopher aged five years) set out for the local sweet shop for some ice cream. It was a short walk through a suburban neighborhood and the children's trip was witnessed by a number of their neighbors. Amazingly all three of the children disappeared without a trace. Kidnapping and foul play were suspected. Day-by-day, the media hyped the story sparking national fear and anxiety in parents, their children, and all in charge of childcare, etc. Nine-year old, Adrian McPhee already had enough to fear. He was abandoned by his father and mother. He is living with his agoraphobic uncle, Rory and his grandmother who longs for the peace of retirement and a freedom from childcare only grudgingly accepts his presence in the household. Adrian is not accepted by his classmates, and he is both intrigued and repulsed by the behavior and treatment of Sandra, nicknamed the "horse girl", a disturbed classmate from St. Jonah's orphanage which only adds to Adrian's greatest fear - being sent to an orphanage. Needless to say, the suspicion and watchfulness sparked by current events is less than conducive to Adrian already fearful and depressed state. Then into the neighborhood arrives three strange children (Nicole aged eleven years, Joely aged six years, and Giles aged two-and one half years). The children do not go to school, they seem to have no visible mother, and whenever Adrian approaches them or their house, a man who is supposedly their father, suddenly appears and hurries them inside. (Could these be the missing children?) Eventually Adrian gets to speak to Nicole. She is even stranger in person and her story about knowing what happened to the missing children and where they are is more than a little suspicious. The suspense of the novel builds to a sudden and shocking conclusion.

What the Birds See is a truly well written, suspense filled novel. It is genuinely spooky and its ending can not be pre-guess. It is a tale of strange yet somehow very ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances. While the "horse girl" pushes the envelope of believability, the rest of the characters are all believable in their own quirky way. Any adult can empathize with Gran McPhee exhausted and depressed at the thought of raising yet another generation. Uncle Rory is understandable in his agoraphobic grief and guilt over a tragic accident during his reckless youth that devastated his family. Adrian is equally understandable in his fearfulness of a life filled with the unknown and already brimming with abandonment.

Sonya Hartnett is an award winning Australian author of thirteen books for young people. She wrote her first novel Trouble All the Way (1984) when she was fifteen years old. She was named The Sydney Morning Herald Young Novelists of the Year in both 2002 and 2003. Her literary awards include the CBC Award for older readers for Forest (1996), and the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize for Thursday's Child (2002). What the Birds See (2004) was originally published as Of a Boy (2000). The novel was nominated for the Miles Franklin Award and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. It was the winner of the Age Book of the Year Award, the Commonwealth Writer's Prize, Best Book in the South East Asia and South Pacific Region. Her other works include, Wilful Blue (1994); Sleeping Dogs (1995); Black Foxes (1996), and Thursday's Child (2002). Her latest book is Stripes of the Sidestep Wolf (UK, 2004). Hartnett lives in Melbourne.

What the Birds See by Sonya Hartnett is an award winning novel will keep readers on the edge of their seats. The book is recommended for ages 12 years and up. It does not contain any graphic descriptions of violence but the situation may be upsetting for some sensitive readers. I highly recommend this book.

© 2004 Su Terry

 Su Terry: Education: B.A. in History from Sacred Heart University, M.L.S. in Library Science from Southern Connecticut State College, M.R.S. in Religious Studies/Pastoral Counseling from Fairfield University, a M.Div. in Professional Ministry from New Brunswick Theological Seminary, a Certificate in Spirituality/Spiritual Direction from Sacred Heart University. She is a Licensed Minister of the United Church of Christ and an Assistant Professor in Library Science at Dowling College, Long Island, NY.