Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets by Evan Roskos
HMH Books for Young Readers, 2015, 320 pages
With guilt sitting on his shoulders over the circumstances behind his sister’s near-homelessness, James Whitman of Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets by Evan Roskos copes with his mental illness by hugging trees. As he navigates life with depression and anxiety, James does what he can to mitigate the effects of his condition from talking to the ever-present Dr. Bird, to reciting the poetry of Walt Whitman, to getting a job to help pay for the therapy he goes to without the knowledge of his parents. Handling his own challenges isn’t enough and when he thinks he has an opportunity to bring his sister home, James goes all in. But there’s more to the story than he realizes and it’s going to change everything.
I am all for the psychological explorations of depressed and privileged straight white boys. I am. I even wrote a few blog posts on that very topic and why it’s one of my favorite genres. The Catcher in the Rye. The Secret History. Paper Covers Rock. (Any other recommendations? Please, send them my way.) So I felt a bit let down at how Dr. Bird’s didn’t enrapture me the same way as others. He exhibits a regressive speech pattern, which, combined with some actions that are nearly deplorable, makes James a less sympathetic character than some of those in my favorites. Despite acknowledging knowing the things he’s doing are wrong and even articulating why they’re wrong, James willingly mistreats others. I could never get behind James and really care for him.
Roskos tries, I think, to blend character- and plot-driven fiction. In the end, it doesn’t work out so well for him. Though such a balance can be achieved, Roskos does not quite hit the mark here. James’ character development moves along predictably as he goes from the state of a boy to a man and learns to communicate with others, manage his depression, and accept the things he cannot change. Meanwhile, the conflict of his sister’s expulsion serves as a foundation to a plot that feels underdeveloped and, by the end, somewhat abandoned in favor of scenes that better show James’ growth. Adding to the sometimes-sharp realism of the novel is the ending. Though James does not meet a fate the Grimm Brothers might have prescribed him, neither does he have a Disney-perfect end. Many of his troubles are without resolution, only to be solved a few years down the road when he moves out of his parents’ house. There’s hope in Roskos’ ending, sure, especially now that James has more tools and skills to deal with the challenges he faces, but things are otherwise more-or-less the same.
I think that’s a large part of why the plot/character-driven fiction aspect of Dr. Bird’s breaks down. The end is somewhat gimmicky: It was inside you all along, kid.
So, despite the raves this book has been getting thus far, I’m just kind of eh about it. It’s not bad, but I don’t think it really achieves what it wants to achieve, either – and it didn’t particularly strike anything special in me despite that. If you’re a fan of Catcher and similar works, this might be worth the read just for the sake of interest and comparison.
❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤