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The Boy with a Bird in His Chest
Table of Contents
About The Book
Longlisted for The Center for Fiction 2022 First Novel Prize
“A modern coming-of-age full of love, desperation, heartache, and magic” (Andrew Sean Greer, Pulitzer Prize–winning author) about “the ways in which family, grief, love, queerness, and vulnerability all intersect” (Kristen Arnett, New York Times bestselling author). Perfect for fans of The Perks of Being a Wallflower and The Thirty Names of Night.
Though Owen Tanner has never met anyone else who has a chatty bird in their chest, medical forums would call him a Terror. From the moment Gail emerged between Owen’s ribs, his mother knew that she had to hide him away from the world. After a decade spent in hiding, Owen takes a brazen trip outdoors in the middle of a forest fire, and his life is upended forever.
Suddenly, Owen is forced to flee the home that had once felt so confining and hide in plain sight with his uncle and cousin in Washington. There, he feels the joy of finding a family among friends; of sharing the bird in his chest and being embraced fully; of falling in love and feeling the devastating heartbreak of rejection before finding a spark of happiness in the most unexpected place; of living his truth regardless of how hard the thieves of joy may try to tear him down. But the threat of the Army of Acronyms is a constant, looming presence, making Owen wonder if he’ll ever find a way out of the cycle of fear.
A heartbreaking yet hopeful novel about the things that make us unique and lovable, The Boy with a Bird in His Chest grapples with the fear, depression, and feelings of isolation that come with believing that we will never be loved, let alone accepted, for who we truly are, and learning to live fully and openly regardless.
Reading Group Guide
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Owen Tanner has never met anyone else who has a chatty bird in their chest, but medical forums would call him a Terror. From the moment Gail emerged between Owen’s ribs, his mother knew that she had to keep her child away from the world. After a decade spent in hiding, Owen takes a brazen trip outdoors in the middle of a forest fire, and his life is upended forever.
Owen is forced to flee the home that had once felt so confining and hide in plain sight with his uncle and cousin in Washington. There, he feels the joy of discovering music that cracks him open, of finding his chosen family, of sharing the bird in his chest with his best friend and having them embrace him fully; of falling in love and feeling the devastating heartbreak of rejection before finding a spark of happiness in the most unexpected place; of living his truth regardless of how hard the thieves of joy may try to tear him down. But the threat of the Army of Acronyms is a constant, looming presence, making Owen wonder if he’ll ever find a way out of the cycle of fear.
Topics and Questions for Discussion
1. In chapter 4, Owen and his mother watch The Little Mermaid. Why was this momentous for Owen? What about his mother? How did the movie affect her?
2. “He felt like a ghost, haunting her by picking up after her” (page 23). Why was Owen his mother’s ghost?
3. “Most of them say you developed a bird in your chest because your dad left shortly after I became pregnant with you, that you were cursed because I had you out of wedlock. The nice ones say you have a bird in your chest because you don’t have a strong male figure, that you developed her to take on the role of father” (page 28). While Terrors are fictional, similar statements are often used to judge people in the real world. In what circumstances do you find people invoking the above sentiments?
4. “[Owen] let the music into his skull, felt it sink under his skin and wiggle his muscles” until it “cracked Owen open” (pages 82–3). How does this foreshadow Owen’s eventual relationship to music and what it allows him to feel?
5. After Tennessee comes out to Owen and he gets pummeled by Troy, he shares his own secret of Gail with her (chapter 28). He, however, choses to hide the fact that “Gail could talk and that she whispered up to him all day long. He didn’t tell her about feeling the air and knowing how others felt instantly. He didn’t talk about July. He never said Terror. He remained mum on others like him and the Army of Acronyms” (pages 107–108). Why does Owen choose to keep certain things secret? Keep note of when he chooses to reveal each secret and to whom, and discuss the significance behind each reveal.
6. Tennessee tells Owen, “If you glow bright and stick yourself out there, then people figure there isn’t much left of you to hide and so they leave you alone a little bit,” (page 111). Do you think this is true? Is it good advice? Why or why not?
7. On page 117, after dressing up as Ariel and wearing makeup, he “pass[es] the sensation of never feeling at home until now” to Gail. Why do you think this was Owen’s first time feeling at home?
8. In looking at Owen’s relationships with his friends and acquaintances, he experiences different and dynamic levels of emotional connection and physically intimate experiences, for example, his encounters with Ava (in Chapter 31) and Comet (in Chapter 45) and beyond. How does this represent the fundamental uniqueness of queer interpersonal relationships wherein people are often friends with people of a gender they are attracted to and where expressions of community and intimacy challenge long-standing norms?
9. Owen draws a distinction between the “right kind of attention” (such as attention from a romantic partner) and the “wrong kind of attention” (such as shooting, or even carrying a rifle). What is the difference between the two? Why does this matter to Owen specifically?
10. “Everyone disappears eventually” (page 264). What does disappearance represent to Owen, both in terms of loss and freedom, pain and hope?
10. When Owen happens to run into Clyde on a horse in the woods after receiving an alarming letter from his mother, he is moved by Clyde’s simple action of “put[ting] a hand to his horse’s side” to comfort it when they are in the presence of a doe (page 125). Why do you think this memory stays with Owen and draws him further to Clyde?
11. “It was only himself and the kernel of desire lodged between his thighs” (page 76). Owen’s first time masturbating is a joyous and transformative experience. Later, it’s described: “every time he came, he left bits of himself places, then he also felt a little bit of the place inside himself” (page 80). Then a while later, after his increased feelings of loneliness when Tennessee leaves and he is rejected by Comet, masturbating brings him feelings of “shame” (page 137). Think about what Owen imagines when he masturbates and how he feels, and how those things progress over time. What, if anything, does that tell us about his experiences, both past and present?
12. “We all suffer . . . Queers, Black folks, women. We just suffer in different ways and to different depths.” (page 175). Tennessee says this to Owen after Comet repeatedly defends his stance that a white woman cannot be excused from wearing dreadlocks just because she experiences oppression as a woman. Owen, perhaps due to his general lack of exposure from having been secluded most of his life, does not seem to have a strong grasp on intersectionality. Read this article and discuss how Comet’s experience and oppression as a Black individual is different from that of the white queer characters in this story. Then compare this to Owen’s experience as a Terror. Is it oppression? Why or why not?
13. “The conversation stuck in his chest. He wanted to yell that he was on the same side as them, his friends, but he couldn’t, and so he listened” (page 175). Now reflect on a time you were in a position where you wanted to say the right thing but didn’t know what it was.
14. In chapter 14, his first night without his mother, Owen thinks of himself as “an old-growth tree . . . decomposing” and eventually turning into “bug food,” a thought that soothes him (page 57). Compare this to page 160 where despite his depression, Owen is “pleased he still worried for his life.” What is Owen’s attitude and relationship with death? How does it evolve?
15. “He ignored it. He learned that if he let every single feeling pass him by, if he let it all roll by like water off a duck’s back, then he could avoid feeling hurt . . . Numbness > Sadness” (page 184). After plenty of loss and trauma, why does the night of Owen’s encounter with Comet finally drive him to this point? Is this a choice that we can make or have to make?
16. “I’m not great at being a man” (page 194). What does being a man mean to Owen? How has he described men and masculinity so far? Think of characters outside of his inner circle as well (refer to chapters 9 and 25). Does he fit that description? Why or why not?
17. Owen places emphasis on Tennessee’s attitudes towards people—for example, he remembers that Clyde is “not our people” and believes that liking Natalie is a “betrayal” to Tennessee. Describe how Owen interacts with these nuanced and possibly contradictory ideas and whether he embraces or rejects duality.
18. On page 278, when Clyde visits Owen in the hospital, he says “you are not dreaming.” Why is the word dreaming particularly meaningful given Owen’s history of daymares? What does Clyde and his acceptance represent to Owen?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Owen seems to have different kinds of connections with the elements: he is drawn to the ocean and water; in moments of anxiety, he imagines himself as a tree with roots; he finds comfort being near smoke and fire. Yet he struggles with air and often can’t breathe without Gail or his inhaler. Discuss the role of nature in all its forms as it appears in this story, starting with the obvious (a bird in his chest). Try to come up with as many examples as possible and the ways in which they help tell the story of Owen and the other characters.
2. Owen’s mother repeatedly warns him of the Army of Acronyms. In Chapter 5, she calls them a system that removes children from parents. “Doctors are a strong arm of the Army of Acronyms . . . And cops, too. Cops are worse than doctors” (page 15). Outline the hierarchy of this society in the book wherein people in positions of “public service” (doctors and cops) are a threat. Whom are they specifically a threat to? Do they parallel any powerful institutions in the real world?
3. What is Gail to Owen? What is Owen to Gail? Their relationship is inevitably codependent and simple in that one cannot live without the other. When he sleeps, she watches over his lungs. Yet that is only a small part of their deep, unbreakable connection, which is as emotional as it is physical. What are the ranges of emotions that Gail and Owen bring out of one another? How do they support each other? How do they hurt each other? Do you have your own Gail? Is it another person or does she exist within you?
A Conversation with Emme Lund
Q: What inspired the concept of a boy with a literal bird in his chest?
A: It’s a funny thing, the ways ideas come to me when I’m writing. It’s a lot of trial and error. When I sit down to write a first draft, I’m playing. I think, “Could this be weirder?” I tried out a lot of different things before I landed on the concept of a boy born with a bird living inside of him. The idea came to me a long time ago, so it’s a little fuzzy, but I remember thinking a lot about my own middle school and high school years. Right before I started writing Owen and Gail’s story, I was reading Aimee Bender’s collection, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt. Bender’s stories are full of metaphor. It’s a striking collection of stories that are tragedy glistening with magic. I wanted that, something that took an idea that was tragic—feelings of isolation and loneliness—but made it magical, something special. I remember writing the line, “I have a bird living inside of my chest. Her name is Gail. She’s always been there.” The rest of the book formed around the idea of what happens when you share your secrets with the world.
Q: Did your own upbringing influence the setting of this story and its characters’ connections to nature?
A: Absolutely! My grandfather lives on the Puget Sound just outside of Olympia, Washington. When I was a child, I spent weeks at his house every summer. My family also spent a lot of time fishing and camping in Oregon forests and along the coast. One of my favorite things was simply being quiet in nature. I remember camping with my family and waking up before anyone else. I would stand next to the water when it was so quiet. There’s something powerful about standing next to a large body of water and being completely still. When I was real young, I was kind of a loner, and we had this big backyard in Portland. It felt like a forest in the middle of the city. I would spend hours tucked in the trees, watching for snakes and squirrels. Being in the woods shaped me in my youth, and it shaped Owen, too.
Q: How did you come up with the Army of Acronyms as the antagonist of this story?
A: Bureaucracies and government bodies mean different things to members of marginalized groups than they do those in power. I grew up a poor, white, trans woman in the United States in the ’90s. I had friends who were in the foster care system. We know that the police brutalize Black communities. As someone who is medically transitioning, I know what it’s like to be caught up in a medical system that doesn’t listen to you or is maybe more concerned with research than it is real health care. In the book, Janice comes off as paranoid, and that’s intentional, but her instincts are partly correct. The doctor does search for Owen for years with the intention of running experiments on him and Gail. I think it’s easy for a straight, white, cis, able-bodied person to think that these government entities and healthcare systems are here to help you, but that is only because these systems were designed to help certain people, while other communities have been actively ignored and discarded. I am very fortunate to live in Portland, OR, a city known for its trans health care, and I have found doctors who will listen to me, but it was a long process finding health-care professionals who were trans competent. All of this was present in my mind when I thought about what real world dangers Owen would face for having a bird in his chest.
Q: Did you see yourself in Owen, or alternatively, in any of the other main characters?
A: I think I’m in a little bit of each of these characters, but honestly, the character I most identify with is Gail. I’m silly but also often sad, and I try to bring optimism to any room I am in. There are lots of moments where Gail is quiet, when she is simply feeling the air, and that’s something I can relate to a lot. Of course, I relate to Owen in certain ways, too. In many ways, the community I found surrounding punk music saved my life. Punk shows were the first places I ever found people who were unapologetically queer. I know what it’s like to feel like there’s no one else like you in the whole world.
Q: How does writing a novel compare to poetry, essay, or other forms of writing you’ve previously published?
A: Writing eludes me much of the time. It feels like chasing a slippery, invisible thing. I reserve my mornings for chasing words, playing at my desk, and trying on different ideas. So often, I think I have an idea for a story, but then it becomes clear it’s actually an essay. Sometimes, an essay idea will weasel its way into a story, but everything I’m working on is always influencing everything else, so bits of poetry find space in my essays and story narratives show up in my poetry. I also read a lot while I write. I’m always reading one poetry and one short story collection, a novel, and I read at least an essay a day, so I have a lot to turn to when I need to get my wheels turning. I am sure to an outsider, my Word documents look chaotic, but eventually something clicks into place, and I start to understand what I’m writing. Then I’m able move bits and pieces around and pull from my notebooks until an essay or poem or novel or whatever the piece of writing is supposed to become emerges.
Q: You call this a story of “queer joy.” What does that mean to you?
A: I wanted to write a story where queer characters moved past survival and, instead, sought to thrive and find joy. Queer joy is finding community where you feel held up by friends and family who see you and celebrate you. For a lot of us, tolerance and acceptance are not enough. We want celebration. We want joy. The queer and trans people who make up my family are so special. We deserve to be celebrated. We deserve love. We deserve laughter. I wanted to tell a story that didn’t center coming out or “coming to terms” with one’s queerness. I wanted the book to be closer to my own experience, where coming out and living as trans person has been met with celebration and joy. Not always joy, but more joy than pain.
Q: Who is your Gail?
A: I think the question is “What is my Gail?” What is the secret that I was born with that I felt I needed to hide from the world? I grew up not feeling “right” or “correct” in my person. When I was a child, I would have daydreams of discovering I was an alien that had been plopped down on this earth with no context. My family was part of a very evangelical church, like speaking-in-tongues-in-church-basements type of evangelical. The sermons at these churches were always very anti-queer and anti-trans. I didn’t feel a kinship to most of the people I was in community with. I knew something separated me from these people, but I didn’t know what it was.
In that sense, my Gail, the thing others would label me a “Terror” for, is the fact that I’m a trans woman. My gender confounded me for much of my life. I wasn’t like some other trans people. I didn’t grow up trying on my sisters’ dresses and wearing lipstick when no one was looking. I didn’t have moments of gender euphoria. It was only the gender dysphoria for me, the parts that felt wrong. I came of age in the ’90s, and because I was so sheltered, I didn’t meet another trans woman until I was in my twenties. I had very few queer role models to look up to, both in my personal life and within our wider culture. When I came out as a queer person in my twenties and then again as a trans woman in my thirties, I had a lot of shame and denial to reckon with. I am still reckoning with that shame, but I’m grateful to have gotten to know my Gail now. She’s a lovely bird inside of me.
Q: What are your hopes for queer and trans representation in literature, and in the rest of the world?
A: I have high hopes! I want every kind of story for us, stories where we get our hearts broken or are the ones breaking the hearts. I want stories where we save the day and others where we cause great harm. I want the world to see so many stories about trans and queer people that they begin to understand how prevalent and varied our lives are. I want others to see our pain and our joy and our laughter and our tears and our stage fright and our bellyaches and our triumphs.
Q: What do you want and expect queer/trans readers to take away from this story? Is that the same or different for straight/cisgender readers?
A: I don’t know if it’s ever a good idea to expect a reader to take something away from one of my works, but I do hope queer/trans readers see themselves on the page. I hope they see love and chosen family as a possibility. I hope they laugh a lot. I hope the story sticks to their ribs in the way that good stories that feel like we could have lived them do. If a reader is reading this and beginning to understand a queerness inside of them, I hope this story helps them understand that there are so many people like us in the world and that a life full of joy and love is possible.
I have similar hopes for readers who are straight and cisgender. I hope they see themselves on the page, and if nothing speaks to them on the personal level, I hope they understand what it can like feel like to grow up feeling so utterly different from everyone around you. I also hope they laugh a lot.
Q: Do you have a next project in mind?
A: I’m working on a novel about choosing to love yourself even while the world is ending around you. Recently, I’ve also been really interested in scriptwriting for TV and film. I would love to be a part of an adaptation of Owen’s story for the screen. I don’t think we’re done hearing from him and Gail.
- Publisher: Atria Books (February 15, 2022)
- Length: 320 pages
- ISBN13: 9781982171957
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Raves and Reviews
“Lund has created a fable for our age: a modern coming of age full of love, desperation, heartache and magic. An honest celebration of life and everything we need right now in a book.”
– Andrew Sean Greer, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Less
“Emme Lund’s The Boy with a Bird in His Chest is a beautiful, tender book. I was deeply moved by this story; very caught up in the ways in which family, grief, love, queerness, and vulnerability all intersect. Lund’s sentences are sweet and stick to your ribs. I found myself falling in love with these characters—these messy, deeply realized, fully lovable, and wonderfully human people. The Boy with a Bird in His Chest is a terrific first novel and Emme Lund is a profoundly gifted writer.”
– Kristen Arnett, New York Times bestselling author of Mostly Dead Things and With Teeth
“The Boy with a Bird in His Chest is a beautiful and atmospheric allegory for what we hide in the world, executed with tense lyricism.”
– Christine Hyung-Oak Lee, author of Tell Me Everything You Don’t Remember
“Emme Lund’s The Boy with a Bird in His Chest is the queer coming of age novel I wish I’d had when I was a teenager. Funny and gutting, tender and scorchingly honest, surreal and a little too real, this novel captures the pain and joy of learning to live with your body and all its desires. The Boy with a Bird in His Chest reads like The Perks of Being a Wallflowers written by Kelly Link. Lund’s vision is striking, resonant, and unforgettable.”
– Isle McElroy, author of The Atmospherians, a New York Times Editors’ Choice
“Lund’s accomplished debut imagines an LGBTQ allegory with a blend of magical fantasy and stark reality. [. . .] Lund’s emotive prose treats Owen’s burgeoning development with grace and care. This fine effort succeeds at bringing new life to the coming-of-age story.”
– Publishers Weekly
“A lovely piece of magical realism . . . the strangeness sets it apart from other coming-of-age stories. Embrace magic and suspend your disbelief and this novel may just take you on a beautiful, necessary journey.”
– Kirkus Reviews
“The burden of living with a secret is poignantly rendered and illuminating for those who seek to understand living a life outside the ordinary.”
– The Washington Post
“Emme Lund has managed to capture so many of these feelings and weave them naturally in a story about a boy with a bird in his chest.”
– Porter House Review
“Lund’s brilliant debut is unlike any other coming-of-age out there [...] This is an unputdownable and weirdly relatable book readers won’t want to miss.”
“Lund’s debut novel is a tender bildungsroman that deals honestly with magic, love, grace, and fear.”
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