Mother-daughter review: Brown Bird by Jane Arthur

Reviewed by Kirsteen Ure and Libby Timmins (11)

Warmth, humour, and depth in a ‘quiet, kind book about a quiet, kind kid.’ A new mother-daughter review from 11 year-old Libby and (slightly older) Kirsteen.

Kirsteen: Brown Bird  by poet and children’s author Jane Arthur is a quiet, kind story about a quiet, kind kid, eleven-year-old Rebecca, who struggles with her own quietness and the noise of her often all-consuming, racing thoughts. 

After a term at a new school, Rebecca is just feeling a sense of release and lightness in the school holidays: ‘like when you stop trying not to sink, stop fighting the water and instead, suddenly, you float’. She’s planned a summer of long, slow days indoors, reading and baking in the care of her neighbour, Tilly. Enter Chester, Tilly’s nephew: extroverted, perpetually hungry and the kind of kid who cannot stand to be inside. 

Libby: Chester is like an explosion of fun. He’s chatty – he always has something to say. He and Rebecca are two very different people, but somehow they still manage to be friends. 

Rebecca thinks about things intensely. She often finds her brain racing at night. She thinks about all the things that have happened and the things that she might have said to people during the day and it makes it hard for her to sleep – that’s something I find myself doing sometimes too and I liked that I could relate to this book. 

Kirsteen: It’s not long before Chester is ushering Rebecca all over her new neighbourhood to meet the neighbours and offer his and Rebecca’s services as ‘the odd jobbers’ – a name that seems like a tip of the hat to the Jack Lemon and Walter Matthau film The Odd Couple. There’s an opposition to the children’s friendship, but there’s also a complementary aspect. Rebecca loves to bake, Chester loves food, ‘I’m a growing boy, Aunty’ he tells Tilly. And when Chester talks and talks, it means Rebecca can listen without the pressure of thinking of what she should say. 

There’s also something more. Chester’s mother is terminally ill – we’re never told details, we don’t need to know. Jane Arthur handles this deftly, quietly even. It’s enough to understand that there is something lingering and difficult powering Chester’s momentum and need to be out and with people. 

Libby: It’s unfair that Chester’s mum is so unwell. He’s just a kid – that’s a lot to deal with. I don’t think I could handle that situation. But it’s not a sad book. It’s funny in places. There’s a bit I enjoyed where a woman at Rebecca’s mum’s work says she knew a girl who never got her period but did get a lot of nosebleeds, and Rebecca’s Mum says ‘What, so once a month she goes around with tampons up her nose?’

Kirsteen: The book touches lightly and in a matter of fact way on periods and puberty. Rebecca’s first period arrives just as her friendship with Chester comes crashing down, after she’s been stung by a bee and her glasses have broken. 

As anyone who wears glasses knows (including these two reviewers) it feels calamitous when they get lost or break and Rebecca’s glasses are more than a way to bring the world into focus: ‘it was like my glasses hid me from the world, and that was good’. In the playground, in the moment Chester accidentally steps on them, Rebecca feels exposed and vulnerable. Without her glasses, she can be seen.

Libby: There are some times when Rebecca and Chester’s friendship doesn’t seem like it can last. But even though Chester pushes Rebecca to do things she doesn’t really want to do, meeting new people, gardening, making jam with her school principal’s mum (who at first Rebecca finds scary),  and even though he could have let Rebecca relax a bit more, in the end it helps her to grow and get to know herself and her neighbours on Mount Street better.

The map of Mount Street was useful too. We kept on going back and forth and back and forth to see who Chester and Rebecca would visit next and to figure out what jobs they might be about to do. The map shows jam jars at Mrs Hayes’s house, where they make plum jam; a ladder at Isabel’s where they pick plums; moving boxes outside Ameera’s – Ameera’s family is too busy to talk with Rebecca and Chester because they’ve just moved in; and the cat Lilith outside artist Roxy’s house (although Lilith doesn’t have anything to do with the work they do for Roxy’s art show).

Kirsteen: Brown Bird is warm, wise and well-crafted. It’s written in a way that is accessible to a middle grade audience with lots of dialogue and humour  – we loved  Marama, Tilly’s dog who licks everyone and sleeps moon-shaped. It’s a pleasure to read as an adult and will offer children, particularly those who might tend towards anxiety, lots to identify with, and to enjoy.  


Warm and cosy, accompanied by a cat: the best place to read Brown Bird.

Reviewed by Kirsteen Ure and Libby Timmins (11).