Yesterday, November 20th of 2013, was my twenty-third birthday, and much like I have done for the past several years, I dedicated the day to reading Chasing Redbird by Sharon Creech. Now, I don’t always read the book on the day of my birthday, but within the week, I devour it. I can’t remember when Chasing Redbird became a birthday thing. I guess it seemed like a reasonable thing to make an annual tradition. All I know is that it’s been going strong since high school.
Chasing Redbird is the story of Zinny Taylor and her oversized family in Bybanks, Kentucky. Zinny is the third of seven children, and more often than not, she feels lost in the shuffle at her house. She latches onto her Aunt Jessie and Uncle Nate instead of her own parents for most of her childhood, but she feels guilty for catching the whooping cough that led to the death of her cousin (Jessie and Nate’s only child). The book takes place during the summer after Aunt Jessie dies as Zinny, now thirteen, tries to find something — what? who? — that will help define her as something other than an “agent of doom.” Zinny discovers the start of an old trail at the back of her family’s property and decides that she must uncover the whole thing by herself. Of course, this is easier said than done as her overwhelming family and the new boy in town both start getting in her way.
If you’ve never read Chasing Redbird, your childhood is missing something beautiful. You should go back, right now, and read it. Read it now.
Chasing Redbird, by the way, is set in a shared universe with some of Sharon Creech’s other novels. Zinny’s best friend growing up was Sal Hiddle of Walk Two Moons, and Sal’s friend in Ohio Mary-Lou has her own book called Absolutely Normal Chaos. There’s also Sophie from The Wanderer and Dinnie from Bloomability that I’m 97% certain live in the same world. Together, these five books defined my transition from elementary school to middle school.
Sharon Creech has this amazing ability to take complicated, deep literature and then internalize it and produce complicated, deep literature that is geared toward tweens and young teens. Absolutely Normal Chaos has an entire subplot that retells Telemachus’s journey to find Odysseus, for example. I once wrote an entire research paper in college analyzing The Wanderer and its relationship to Old English literature (yes, I did that! And I got an A). Basically, the woman’s a literary genius. But because she writes for children and for youth, her work will probably never be studied as “serious lit.”
Which is heinous, by the way. Absolutely heinous.
Earlier today, I took a picture of my copy of Chasing Redbird and sent it to my older sister with the text: What I’m doing for my birthday. I’m now ten years older than Zinny Taylor. The first time I read this book, I was two years younger. A tootle ee ah dah!
Chasing Redbird, moreso than its sister books, has stuck with me over the years. I’ve probably read it sixty or seventy times. Between the first time I read it in fifth grade and the end of sixth grade alone, I had read it twenty-five times (I counted). I didn’t have as many siblings as Zinny, and I didn’t have my own physical trail to literally uncover, but I felt like she was a kindred spirit, and that I was just as connected to her as she was to Rose. I felt like I had my own little Til Next We Meet medallion locked away somewhere in a drawer. And you know what? Twelve years later, and I still feel like that. I still feel like I’m right there with her, and I’m chasing Redbird again and again.
I did a massive book project on Chasing Redbird in middle school (seventh grade? eighth?). The project included a book report style paper, an in-class presentation on the book, and a poster project. I kept my Chasing Redbird poster for years (it went missing while I was in Argentina during my junior year of high school) because of how proud I was of that project. I took the map of the Bybanks-Chocton Trail from the front of the book and sketched a larger version, which I stained with tea to make it look old. I still remember my version of that map and how hard I worked to make it precise.
The first time I ever heard “The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B,” I nearly jumped right out of my skin. It was a creepy feeling, like I had unlocked a hidden drawer in my memory the way Zinny does when she remembers Rose as a toddler doing the old lady and hiding in Aunt Jessie’s shopping bag. I guess I hadn’t realized it was a real song.
When I was first applying to colleges in my senior year of high school, Adelphi University’s application (not on the common app!) required an essay response to one of several questions, including “What is your favorite book and why?” I thought for a long time about what I was going to write about. Should I pick something I had read in school to make me sound academic and scholarly? Should I pick something my friends and I had all read together and obsessed over? I decided to write about Chasing Redbird instead of anything that would make me sound good or look good on paper. I realized that just because the book’s intended audience was middle school didn’t mean the book had any less value. I wrote a long and passionate ode to Chasing Redbird then, in which I basically said that if they thought it wasn’t a good choice then they were idiots and wrong. I got into that college and was offered a spot in their Honors College and the Levermore Global Scholars program (which I accepted and was a part of for a year before transferring to Nyack).
I keep reading Chasing Redbird because more than any book, when I open it, I feel home. I’ve started it in the middle and read to the end, only to go back to the beginning and read until I picked it up in the first place (sometimes the whole way through again). Sometimes I read it in a few hours, but sometimes I savor it over a couple of days. I don’t think I go more than a month or two without wanting to read it, but I’m usually so busy that I don’t have time. Which is why I save my birthday for Chasing Redbird. And you’d think that, what with having read and re-read this book so many times, it would seem old and boring. But it never is. As soon as Zinny says that worms dangle in Aunt Jessie’s kitchen, I get hooked. I see new things each time I read it, or I remember new things all over again. Zinny’s descriptions of time and dark and life have shaped how I view the universe. The only other fiction book I’ve ever read that has come close to having that amount of impact on my life is Wild Magic by Tamora Pierce, but even that book only clocks in with about twenty or so readings.
I’ve read a lot of books in my life, and there are several that I call my favorites, depending on the situation and my mood. Sometimes, my favorite is Franny & Zooey; sometimes, it’s The Interpreter of Maladies or The Bell Jar. Sometimes, it’s The Left Hand of Darkness or Wild Magic or The Lord of the Rings. But when I really, really put that question to the test, the answer is ultimately (and will always be) Chasing Redbird.
I guess if I have one birthday wish, it would be that the literary world and academia would stop ghettoizing genre fiction (fantasy, SF, horror) and young adult literature. That the brilliant and beautiful work of writers like Sharon Creech would be respected not just within YA, but within literature in general. That some of the labels would just disappear. That way, books like Chasing Redbird could get the attention that they deserve without being dismissed as children’s lit and nothing more.