________________ CM . . . . Volume XVI Number 13. . . .November 27, 2009.


Free as a Bird.

Gina McMurchy-Barber.
Toronto, ON: Dundurn, 2010.
168 pp., pbk., $12.99.
ISBN 978-1-55488-447-6.

Grades 6-9 / Ages 11-14.

Review by Megan Lankford.


Reviewed from Advance Review Copy.




My name’s Ruby Jean Sharp an I growed up in Woodlands School. That wasn’t a nice place for liddle kid—nope, not a nice place a’tall. Sometimes the uniforms was happy with me—that’s how come they called me Sharp-as-a-Tack. But there was other times when they wasn’t happy—that’s cause I’d scratch or bite or wet my pants. Uniforms said I did that cause I was a bad kid…said I had a behaviour problem. Maybe they was right. But maybe I jus dint like bein bossed round all the time or sittin all day with nothin to do cept go stir crazy. Maybe it was cause I dint like standin naked in the tub room an getting sprayed down with cold water. Whatever it was made me behave bad—them Uniforms had ways to make me stop. Sometimes they hit me or shouted an called me names, like gaw’damn retard. They called me that on account of me not bein so smart.

As soon as readers open Free as a Bird, they are immediately taken into the unique and fascinating mind of Ruby Jean Sharp, a developmentally disabled girl growing up in a world of injustice. Telling her story as an adult, Ruby Jean effectively describes the prejudices and inequalities she faced as a ward of the Woodlands School, located in New Westminster, BC. Surviving every sort of abuse while there, Ruby Jean sheds light into her horrible past and speaks beyond herself to share the political and social wrongdoings of her time. Born with Down’s Syndrome, Ruby Jean spends her first eight years being cared for by her grandmother. When she passes away, Ruby Jean’s mother leaves her at the Woodlands School, where she stays until she gets adopted by an elderly couple. Ruby Jean tells her story from her trials at the Woodland School, through her social skills classes with mentor, Grace, through her adoption into the Williams’ home and eventually to her time living on the streets of Vancouver.

     While the language of Free as a Bird might seem elementary and unnecessary to some readers, McMurchy-Barber uses the misspellings, the simplified understandings, and the overall differences between Ruby Jean and a normal narrator to safely broach the serious issues of abuse and misconduct for a young audience while also exploring and celebrating the beautiful mind of a very special person. Because of the simple language, McMurchy-Barber is able to hint to larger issues, such as homelessness, sexual abuse, physical abuse, and injustice, without having to provide detailed descriptions. The perspective of Ruby Jean allows such brief introductions and invites further exploration beyond this one work. Because McMurchy-Barber dedicated her work to her parents and her sister, also born with Down’s Syndrome, it seems that she also hopes to shed light to the unique way children and adults with a range of developmental disabilities can live, contribute, and enjoy the world.


Megan Lankford is a student at the University of British Columbia earning a Masters of Arts in Children's Literature.

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