A Head Full of Birds – Alexandra Garibal

A Head Full of Birds by Alexandra Garibal, Sibylle Delacroix, Vineet Lal
Also by this author: The Brothers Zzli, Home
Published by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers on October 18, 2022

A school story to encourage friendship and understanding among children of all abilities.
When the other kids mock her at recess, Nanette doesn’t listen. She’d rather focus on puddles, spider webs, and whatever she can create with her hands. One day a boy named Noah—who’d rather fly paper airplanes than listen to the lesson—starts sitting at Nanette’s table. At first, Noah finds Nanette confusing and a little frustrating. But her ideas look like so much fun… 
Expressively illustrated in colored pencils, this school story will foster discussions about navigating differences and embracing creativity. A Head Full of Birds is a sensitive portrayal of neurodiverse friendships and the joy that comes when we reimagine the world together.

A Head Full of Birds is the story of neurodiverse friendship. The opening panels introduce us to Nanette, who exhibits some autistic symptoms such as having a deep inner life of imagination. Later, we’re introduced to Noah who seems to have difficulty paying attention in school, exhibiting symptoms of ADHD. The purpose of the book is to show how the two forge a friendship and find belonging in a world that doesn’t understand.

While the book had potential, it’s not one that I would read to my autistic child. Nanette’s autistic traits are presented as unfavorably or neutral and she is the subject of bullying at school. The bullies never change and are really never mentioned. Neurotypical people are portrayed as cruel and mean and the world as unkind to those with neurodiversity. The only way out, says the book’s message, is finding solace and comfort in other neurodiverse people.

Neurodiversity is a social disability. Autistic people and people with ADHD have brains that work differently than most people. As such, society is rarely built to accommodate them. There’s an old saying that says “In a world of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” But that’s not necessarily true. Society would be oriented to favor the blind. We look on the story with our two-eyed ableness, unable to fathom that even something like sight is only beneficial to our current society because our current society assumes people are sighted. If we, as society, want to be more inclusive to neurodiverse people, the answer is to change society to accommodate them. Instead, in A Head Full of Birds, the message—perhaps unintentional—is that one should find solace in other marginalized people because dominant society will never change.

Maybe I’m reading too much into a children’s book. I just wish Nanette and Noah’s beautiful friendship was built on something other than shared trauma from living as neurodiverse people in an unaccommodating society. It’s like when you see a story about how a group of public school teachers gifted their sick days to a colleague who needed time off for cancer treatments or when a kid spent all summer mowing lawns to pay for other kids’ school lunch debts. It’s usually portrayed as a heartwarming story, but it is set in the background of a depressing systemic reality. A Head Full of Birds is beautifully illustrated, but fumbles in its messaging.