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The Unsung Hero of Birdsong, USA

Review

The Unsung Hero of Birdsong, USA

Brenda Woods’ newest middle-grade novel THE UNSUNG HERO OF BIRDSONG, USA is a charming, whimsical and heartfelt portrait of the friendship between an empathetic 12-year-old boy and a kind, patient African-American veteran in his segregated small southern town. Set in a time of patriotic fervor in the late-1940’s following World War II, this poignant historical fiction novel is written with so much heart and provides a compelling narrative about bravery and friendship. Gabriel Haberlin loves his life in Birdsong, his small town in South Carolina. He has loving parents and adoring cousins, especially his spunky cousin Tink who loves to take photographs and speaks with Northern slang she learned from her friend who recently moved South from New York City. He has an awesome best friend, Patrick. And on his twelfth birthday, he receives what be the best birthday present of all time: a new Schwinn Autocycle Deluxe with a built-in electric light.

"THE UNSUNG HERO OF BIRDSONG, USA is a fantastic and important historical fiction novel that is beneficial to any kid....Woods [embeds] a valuable lesson about race and the military into a cute whimsical story about empathy and friendship..."

Gabriel can’t wait to take it on a spin around Birdsong, showing off his new present and heading straight to Patrick’s house. Then, Gabriel is nearly hit by Mrs. Babcock, who might be the worst driver in the whole world. Luckily, Gabriel is saved in the nick of time by a kind stranger: Meriweather, a black man who is looking for work and good at fixing things. He fixes Gabriel’s bike and as a way of paying the man who saved his life back, Gabriel convinces his dad, who owns a gas station and car shop, to offer Meriweather work. Gabriel and Meriweather begin to forge a strong friendship, albeit one that might be threatened by Lucas, one of the other attendant’s at his father’s shop who doesn’t take kindly to Meriweather’s presence and has connections with the Ku Klux Klan. Nevertheless, Gabriel’s friendship with Meriweather becomes a mind-altering life experience as Gabriel learns more about the racial divide in his small town, forcing him to realize Birdsong isn’t as perfect as it seems, and Meriweather shares his secret that he served in the army’s all-black 761st Tank Battalion in World War II. Written with ample helpings of humor and hope, this is an adorable story about race, perception and learning to see and value history.

First and foremost, THE UNSUNG HERO OF BIRDSONG, USA is a fantastic and important historical fiction novel that is beneficial to any kids learning about World War II. What Woods does in this book is embed a valuable lesson about race and the military into a cute whimsical story about empathy and friendship, values which are also incredibly important. Before reading this book, I didn’t know about the 761st Tank Battalion, because it wasn’t something that was taught in school and it wasn’t in my textbooks. That’s the gap that this book helps to fill, offering information about this key aspect of African-American history in an entertaining way. The parts of the book where Meriweather talked about his service and how he felt coming back from the war and being endangered rather than celebrated because of that service were some of my favorite parts of this book. The book cleverly presents a narrative that discusses race, racism and segregation in ways that don’t feel overly didactic. This is also a book filled with lovable characters. I loved Meriweather and his daughter, Abigail. Gabriel was an adorable protagonist. The descriptions of his quirky neighbors were fantastic and his mom, dad and cousins rounded out this cast. The book also uses a lot of slang and colloquialisms from the late-1940s, which I enjoyed and didn’t detract too much from the overall book.

Overall, I can’t recommend this book enough, especially to librarians, teachers and parents. Get this book into the hands of your kids and then talk to them about it. It has an upbeat, charming and cute vibe with some of the most thought-provoking and profound lines about how to see the world and other that I’ve read in middle grade fiction. This book also shows how emotionally deep middle grade can be. My only complaint was that I wanted more --- more about the friendship between Meriweather and Gabriel, more about the 761st Tank Battalion, more of Birdsong. However, you can’t go wrong with a book that combines beautiful writing with a compelling and necessary lesson about American history.

Reviewed by Taylor Tracy on January 30, 2019

The Unsung Hero of Birdsong, USA
by Brenda Woods