The Awkwardness of Adolescence: A Review of Emme Lund’s The Boy with a Bird in His Chest

In her debut novel, The Boy with a Bird in His Chest, Emme Lund celebrates queer joy through Owen Tanner’s journey to family, freedom, and love. Lund had no intention of replicating the typical queer coming of age story where the gay teen and everyone around them has trouble coming to terms with their gayness. Instead, Owen and the queer figures around him accept their queerness even when the brutality of others challenges them. And while the main character is gay, much of the story focuses far more on the fact that Owen truly does have a bird in his chest.

In the four sections and seventy-five brief chapters, ranging from a single line to nine pages, the troubles and joys Owen experiences continually come back to the fact that he has a little bird named Gail who lives inside him. The humorous and protective bird acts as a constant companion to a sickly boy living in isolation. This isolation, born out of his mother’s valid, yet misguided fear, is the only life Owen knows until a curiosity about the world overtakes him. A single step outside eventually throws him into a life where he’s no longer spending his days alone with Gail but actively trying to hide her while navigating high school, puberty, and the search for his people.

His cousin, Tennessee, is also a queer teen who has a habit of pointing out who is and who is not their people. To her, finding their people is an attempt to find their tribe, their group, their band of friends and family who look out for each other and love one another. The teen angst is palpable when Owen wonders out loud, “Do you think there is a universe where someone loves me?” His question has more to do with hiding the bird and steering clear of the doctors, cops, and other agencies his mother collectively calls the Army of Acronyms than the fact that he’s gay. 

His intensely protective mother instills a fear in him that exposing himself will turn him into an experiment. At times, this fear prevents him from leaning into his true feelings and getting close to others. At other times, a thief of joy actively stands in the way of experiencing love and connection, but the encouraging bird he must hide builds a confidence in him to go after love. The bird acts as an inner voice of assurance and reason to combat the many teenage questions he would otherwise be trying to tackle on his own.

As this is a story of growth and experimentation, topics of race, gender equality, and other societal issues are discussed from an adolescent lens. The reoccurring themes of drug use, alcohol use, sex, and a romanticized view of death appear as well. The heavy topic of child abuse comes up within the story as another character tries to take control of their life. But with all these loaded topics the story is not emotionally weighed down with their severity. Lund balances the importance of these topics with the central story of Owen finding his way in a world.

The theme of water is established from the start and Lund often uses this as a mirror to Owen’s emotions. His sadness is felt when Lund writes, “Owen woke up one morning and the world was water.” Lund uses water to describe Owen’s pounding hangover when she writes, “The next morning, an ocean crashed inside Owen’s skull, so he stayed under the covers, ignoring all signs of an outside world progressing without him.” The amount of water and the way it moves in the story descriptively mimic the tides within a teenage boy finding his footing.

The story speaks to how awkward it can be to learn how to interact with new friends and find love while going through the many emotions that run rampant in adolescence. Emme Lund has managed to capture so many of these feelings and weave them naturally in a story about a boy with a bird in his chest.