cover image WHAT THE BIRDS SEE


Sonya Hartnett, . . Candlewick, $15.99 (196pp) ISBN 978-0-7636-2092-9

Hartnett (Thursday's Child) again captures the ineffable fragility of childhood in this keenly observed tale set in 1977 in her native Australia. Adrian has one school friend and many secret fears, including tidal waves, sea monsters, quicksand and being abandoned ("Everybody leaves me. I'm not allowed to be anywhere," he laments). Taken away from his (apparently) mentally ill mother, and unwanted by his father, nine-year-old Adrian lives with his grandmother and traumatized, agoraphobic uncle. The boy becomes transfixed by the story of three siblings in a nearby suburb who went out for ice cream and disappeared; he wonders why ordinary children like himself might have been "worth taking or wanting, a desirable thing." As the title indirectly suggests, the author maintains an omniscient, bird's-eye perspective, taking in not only Adrian's experiences but the feelings of his grandmother and uncle, some information about the new family next door (it includes three children and a desperately ill mother) and news of the missing children. The measured distance Hartnett puts between readers and Adrian allows her to introduce a tragic climax that neither manipulates nor (likely) devastates the audience. Sophisticated readers will appreciate the work's acuity and poetic integrity. Ages 14-up. (Feb.)