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Tag Team Review: “Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets” by Evan Roskos

September 9, 2013

Dr. BirdWelcome to Tag Team reviews! In this post, Kelly and I will discuss the recently released “Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets” by Evan Roskos.

High school is not easy for James Whitman. His sister Jorie has been kicked out of the house by the Brute and his mom, his anxiety keeps him from making friends, and he’s living under a weight of depression. But! There’s the beautiful Beth King to aspire to, his best friend Derek to hang out with, his imaginary psychiatrist Dr. Bird to talk to, and of course, his favorite poet Walt Whitman to give him advice and comfort.

Andrea: I don’t think I’ve been this excited about a debut title since “Divergent” came out! James Whitman’s character–his humor, shyness, and struggles with depression and relationships were so vivid and real that I felt an actual grief when the book ended, because I’ll never actually get to meet this kid.

Kelly: I also really enjoyed this book. While James’ depression is palpable, and I shared his sorrow and concern as he slowly unveiled his sister’s troubling secrets, there were also times when I laughed out loud. In an early scene, there is a hilarious incident that earns James the nickname “Short Bus.” I would spoil it if I told you what happened, but it won’t ruin a thing to tell you that it was so unexpectedly funny that I had tears in my eyes. The whole book was sprinkled with smart little touches of humor. For example, James’ sister works at a restaurant named Fillmore’s, a soulless chain restaurant that names their burgers after American presidents and their side dishes after vice presidents.

Andrea: I totally agree! This is the funniest book about depression that I have ever read. I rarely laugh out loud when I read, but this book really had me chuckling. I also thought that James’ emulation of Walt Whitman was funny and touching. Oftentimes literary name-dropping in a novel can seem affected, but James literally tries to incorporate the wisdom of Walt Whitman into his life, oftentimes with hilarious results (like hugging trees for comfort before school).

My favorite part about this book, however, was Roskos’ realistic and sensitive depiction of what it’s like living with depression and anxiety. In teen books, characters dealing with depression often feel heavy and over-drawn like an after-school special, but Roskos shows us James’ depression in his thoughts and actions, like in this moment of anxiety in the hallway at school when a small absurd detail sticks out, “I let my breath out. Two cheerleaders walk by me slowly, staring at me without worry. It must be nice to find the world strange but to keep walking.” As someone who has experienced depression and anxiety and knows it well, if found myself exclaiming, “That’s exactly how it is! I wish I could have articulated it so well,” many times throughout the book.

Kelly: I view James as a real-life hero. Despite all of his anxieties, he is able to overcome them to rescue his best friend from a bad situation, confront his parents about his problems, and boldly investigate his sister’s expulsion. In the end, James still needs and desires professional help. Roskos illustrates well that depression is not a personal shortcoming that a person can easily shake off or defeat, but is a mental illness that is best treated through medicine and therapy. “Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets” could be a dark and angsty pity-party, but instead is a reminder that we live in a terrible and wondrous world full of sorrow and beauty, and, most of all, hope.

School Library Journal recommends this title for students in grades 9 and up. 

–Andrea W., H.Q. and Kelly B., H.Q.

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