Book Review: Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets

Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets by Evan Roskos. March 2013. 9780547928531. Gr. 9-12.

I loved this book.

The review that follows can really be boiled down to those four words, but that short distillation is what I keep coming back to, and is what I have been telling everyone about Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets, an outstanding debut novel by Evan Roskos.

The book is filled with quirkiness and lots of dark, self-deprecating humor, as well as healthy doses of heartbreaking sadness and equal measures of hopefulness.  Some may read the book’s synopsis that says, in part (regarding the protagonist), “James recites Walt Whitman, hugs trees, and talks to an imaginary bird therapist” and think that it is just too strange to pick up and read, but there is a sweetness to James that pulled me in; he is a character that you feel for and hope that things turn out well for him.

James is troubled.  He doesn’t feel that he fits in anywhere, and really only has one friend to help him navigate the difficult time of his life that is high school.  He struggles with depression and crippling anxiety, which is compounded by the fact that his parents aren’t willing to get him help.  He calls his father and mother, “The Brute” and “The Banshee”, respectively, and they are uncaring and abusive to James and his sister, Jorie.  Jorie has been thrown out of the house, leaving James even more isolated.  Typical adolescent issues also plague James, as he struggles with girl issues and being a good friend.

James’ mental illness provides the backbone of the book, and Roskos has drawn on his own mental illness issues to lend authenticity.  James resists becoming one of the multitude of the medicated, yet has difficulty getting out of bed due to his depression, goes through periods where he doesn’t even have the energy to eat, and even contemplates suicide.  At a particularly low point, he wonders if he and his sister are “poisoned with sadness in our blood”.  But with all of the gloominess in the book, there is always a hopeful air to James and his situation.  He uses poetry and photography to provide self-help, and “talks” with his imaginary bird therapist.  He does get professional help as well, so throughout the book the reader hopes things are turning in the right direction for James.

Teenhelp.com says that 20% of teens will experience depression before they reach adulthood.  Depression is isolating by its nature, so perhaps reading this book and knowing that others deal with similar issues may provide some teens with comfort and understanding about their situation.

Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets is a funny, sad, entertaining read that illuminates the often-dark topic of mental illness.

(Note: The book contains instances of sexual talk, mostly between James and his best friend Derek.  This is done in a responsible way by Roskos, and in my opinion, reflects how many teens talk about sex.  But, I would encourage you to get a copy in your hands and decide for yourself the age-appropriateness as it pertains to the teens in your life.)

Ryan H.

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