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Canadian Children's  Book Centre
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Free as a Bird

Ruby Jean is a girl with Down syndrome who is discarded into an institution by her callous mother after her grandmother and caregiver passes away. The loving and curious girl is soon crushed by cruel staff and she is the victim of mental, physical and sexual abuse. Many years later, two determined social workers are able to place Ruby Jean with a caring foster family where she learns to trust people again and to hold a job. When Ruby Jeans fears she may be sent back to the institution, she runs away and ends up on the streets, setting the stage for more life lessons and an emotional reunion.

The topics of tolerance and understanding explored in Free as a Bird are ideal for a younger audience, but the disturbing and mature themes make this a difficult book to recommend for middle grade readers. The narrative style (very conversational and written in Ruby Jean’s idiomatic English) is less appropriate for teens though, so the audience for this book is fairly hard to categorize. With the right guidance, however, Ruby Jean can be an eye-opening and inspirational character for almost any age. The book has its flaws — it is often simplistic and almost every character is either all bad or all good — but this is still a powerful and intense story about how recently our society considered some children to be worthless and expendable and a reminder that this is still the case in many places.

Source: The Canadian Children's Bookcentre. Summer 2010. Vol.33 No.3.

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