The Bower Bird by Ann Kelley

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The Bower Bird by Ann Kelley

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Category: Teens
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: Beautifully written, with a plucky heroine and lots of bittersweet humour, this is a lovely book. However, the protagonist is probably younger than the readers who could cope with its ideas, refining it to the more sophisticated junior audience.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 208 Date: December 2007
Publisher: Luath Press Ltd;
ISBN: 978-1906307325

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Gussie is twelve years old. She loves cats, birds, insects, words, and photographs. And her mum. And her dad. And she's pretty keen on Brett too. Gussie would like to become a photographer when she grows up. Did you know you make photographs. You don't take photographs, because that sounds as though you're stealing. For the same reason, you should always ask permission before photographing someone. You make a photograph of them; you don't take one from them. The only hitch to Gussie's ambition is that she might not grow up at all, let alone become a photographer when she does. Gussie's on the waiting list for a heart and lung transplant.

This is Ann Kelley's second book about Gussie. I havent read the first, The Burying Beetle but it didn't really matter. Gussie makes you feel immediately at home in her world. She's as bright as a button, sharp enough to cut herself, and certainly not a willing receptacle of anyone's pity. She has things she wants to do - make photographs, track down her father's ancestors, get closer to Brett - and she sets about doing them with enviable verve and gusto.

At one point, Gussie's mother calls her a precocious beast, and she is a bit. Because she's been out of school and around adults for much of her life, Gussie is both older and younger than her years. She falls upon visitors, especially child visitors, because she has so little experience of a peer group. Her observations are witty and intelligent and she thinks about her foreshortened life expectancy with a sophistication and maturity way beyond her years. Many of her interests are adult interests. She likes the things her parents like; art, art house films, sculptors, word etymologies and she looks at them with the fresh eye of a child but the vocabulary of an adult. We spend a year in St Ives with this delightful little girl, a year in which she waits for a life-saving operation, and a year whose escapades are entrancing. There isn't much plot, but it's all so lovely, you really don't mind.

However, even though when you've just read such a winsome book about such a charming central character as Gussie, you feel churlish if you criticise, I do wonder whether The Bower Bird is actually the kind of children's book adults like best.

Gussie is twelve, but she is, as I've said, a charmingly precocious twelve. For one reason or another, her frames of reference, her diction and her grasp of metaphysical ideas are somewhat more advanced than you'd expect from the average twelve-year-old. She talks about sculptors, obscure art-house films and the rhyming structure of poetry. However, children tend to like to read about characters a year or two older than themselves and this pitches The Bower Bird at ten-year-olds. It's going to go over the heads of many ten-year-olds. So while I heartily recommend the book, it's most heartily recommended for adults, those who have some affinity with illness, or the most sophisticated of late primary and early secondary readers. All of these will love it.

Older readers might also be interested in Jenny Downham's Before I Die about Tess, a young girl with terminal leukaemia. Anthony McGowan's Henry Tumour takes a blackly humorous look at serious illness.

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Buy The Bower Bird by Ann Kelley at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Bower Bird by Ann Kelley at


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Magda said:

You make photographs in Polish, too. Taking them always seemed weird to me :-)

Why this horrid name, though?? Gussie?

Jill replied:

Cool to the Polish making not taking! Um... it's short for Augusta. It's all part and parcel of my saying this is probably a children's book that will be beloved of adults rather than children. Gussie/Augusta? Nobody's called that, except for a very few, artsy, posh people.

The Author said:

Dear Jill,

I love your review of my book - thank you. I thought you might be interested to know that the Gussie books were written for adults. It's an accident that they were taken up by first WH SMITH (Fresh Talent Award for THE BURYING BEETEL) and then Costa (for THE BOWER BIRD as Children's Book of the Year,) as books for older children.

I find that the stories are enjoyed by adults as much as teens, which is gratifying. I have been labelled a children's book author, and I don't mind, but it is an unlooked for title.

Yours gratefully,

Ann Kelley

Jill replied:

Oh, now that DOES clear a few things up! Thank you for letting me know! I like your book even more now that I realise it doesn't fit a rigid niche! And you are welcome for the review.