☆ Book Review: How to Turn Into a Bird
Reviewed by Genevieve Hartman
A resonant and artful work that follows a young boy and his unconventional uncle in their quest to reach the sky
Written by María José Ferrada and translated by Elizabeth Bryer, How to Turn Into a Bird tells the story of Miguel, his uncle Ramón, his aunt Paulina, and his mother. Their complicated family dynamic wends through the book, as Miguel’s mother, along with the whole town, tries to keep Miguel from associating with Ramón.
The reason? Ramón has taken a job guarding a Coca-Cola billboard, and he has made the unusual decision to live inside the billboard itself.
The general consensus is that Ramón has gone insane, but Miguel sees past this lack of convention to Ramón’s deep-seated dissatisfaction with “normal” life. Miguel takes to visiting Ramón, who sits alone with the clouds most days, contemplating the sky and the stars, content to let the machinations of society pass him by.
As the townspeople become more enraged by the eyesore of a billboard-turned-apartment, and as the population of nearby unhoused people venture closer to the pristine borders of town, it’s only a matter of time before the tension boils over, and Miguel’s family and their lives are changed forever.
Ferrada’s storytelling in How to Turn Into a Bird is both timeless and deeply resonant for today. Told from the perspective of twelve-year-old Miguel, the story of Ramón’s life and his need to escape a society that ostracizes the misunderstood and the poor is wrought with wisdom and gentleness.
Miguel is a perceptive child, and this coming-of-age story hinges on his growing awareness of the harsh realities and brutalities administered by ordinary people. When Ramón first decides to move out of Paulina’s apartment to live in the billboard, Miguel is fascinated, rather than horrified or mocking. Unlike the rest of the town, Miguel is willing to listen instead of judge.
For his part, Ramón has been characterized by the people around him as “Odd, but not a bad person” for his whole life. This once-harmless sentiment grows feral when Ramón moves to the billboard, when his “odd” personality can no longer be ignored.
An aside about Ramón’s childhood affords readers some background while still allowing the bulk of the story to take place in a few short weeks. It builds the readers’ connection and sympathy for Ramón—he has always been the sort of person to move into a billboard, but he’s held himself back for the sake of the people around him, until he can’t any longer. In the short time that readers have to get to know Ramón, he comes alive vibrantly on the page through his musings on the stars and the silence.
It’s a testament to Ferrada’s writing and Bryer’s translation that even as How to Turn Into a Bird’s message feels apparent, it avoids being didactic and maintains its poignance when told in Miguel’s guileless and open-minded voice. It is an achingly intimate window into the lives of a complicated family, with their diverging dreams and desires. This book reminds readers that to allow yourself to be different from the rest of the world is a rare and beautiful thing, no matter the risks.
Publisher: Tin House Books
Genre: Literary Fiction / Coming of Age
Print Length: 296 pages
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