Review: Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets

Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets by Evan Roskos. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2013. Personal copy. Morris shortlist.

The Plot: James Whitcomb, sixteen, has nicknames for his parents: the Brute and the Banshee.

That may be all you need to know about his home life. But here’s some more: his parents threw his older sister out of the house. All James wants is for her parents to allow Jorie back in the house. Well, and for the school to un-expell her so she can graduate high school.

As for high school — well, James loves Walt Whitman poetry so Yawps a lot. He has been known to hug a tree. And then there’s the time when he tried to impress a girl, Beth King, by saving a bird and ended up getting hit by a school bus. Oh, and he managed to save a Tastykake wrapper. Not a bird.

He does have one friend: Derek.

And then there’s Dr. Bird. His imaginary therapist, who is a large pigeon.

Dr. Bird, Derek, Beth, Jorie — it’s not a lot of people, especially since one is imaginary, one is real but will be graduating soon, one doesn’t know he exists, another is missing. But it’s a start.

The Good: Oh, all the layers of plot that connect!

There is the mystery of why Jorie was expelled from high school. For James to figure out the mystery, he must learn more about Jorie. You’d think, with just one year difference between them, that he’d know his sister. And he thought he did. When Beth asks him about Jorie’s poetry, James discovers his sister wrote for the literary magazine and this starts James finding out more about his sister. To do that, James has to take a closer look at himself and his family.

The reader knows that if James calls his parents the Brute and the Banshee, his home life is not simple and happy. Whether the labels are that of an angry teen, or deserved, is revealed slowly. James doesn’t even quite realize, or acknowledge, the full dynamics of his family. James — like other teens — is recognizing the way his family works and his own role in it. Yes, they are deserving of the labels Brute and Banshee — but enough is shown of their own pasts to show how they ended up the way they are. And that they aren’t just their label.

What James wants is to get his sister back. This forces him into action, with one thing leading to another. His wanting to learn more about his sister’s poetry leads him to being involved with the literary magazine, using his own poetry and photographs. He wants to see a therapist, recognizing his own anxiety and depression needs more than in imaginary pigeon (even if Dr. Bird’s advice is sometimes good), but to do so needs a job, so starts working at a pizza place with Derek.

So one step in James’s life leads to more steps, that both open up his world but also result in James own personal growth, including the steps he takes for his own depression. And that those steps are more than “make friends, get out of your house, find a hobby” (all things that James does in fact end up doing) — they are meeting with a therapist (a real one) and using that.

This is a Favorite Book Read in 2014 — because of James and Jorie. And the yawps. And Roskos’s writing. And the way that therapy is shown, not as “the” answer, but as part of James’s life.

Other reviews: Stacked; Beth Reads; Miss Literati; Good Books, Good Wine; Author Interview at SLJ.


3 thoughts on “Review: Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets

  1. I started reading this book last night at 9 and I stayed up until midnight to finish it. It was absolutely beautiful. It made me cry a few times and I’m thinking I need to read some Walt Whitman. I love James and Dr. Bird. I’m so happy this book exists because I just know that there are teens out there who will read it and identify with James and his depression and anxiety issues. I think that it offered a really healthy and optimistic view on mental health. I like that Derek and Beth just wanted to help James and didn’t act like he was weird or off. I especially loved Derek. I know that they’re fictional, but I’m so happy James and Derek have each other.


    1. yes, yes, yes, all of this! The relationships, the interactions, — and that it’s optimistic yet realistic. And does all that without being a “message” book or a “problem” book.


    2. thank you for sharing your response, Lindsay. coincidentally, you posted this on my birthday! So that’s really cool.

      I’m so happy when people see both Derek and Beth as people who want to help James. It’s clear that James is trying to help his sister but going about it in an…off way (not exactly wrong but clearly not right). So I like that you saw Derek and Beth as having that same impulse: to TRY.

      For your Whitman fix, be sure to check out — I forget the site in my hardcover acknowledgments, but it’s been my goto site since I was in graduate school and Dr. Bird was the still a future discovery.


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