Born Behind Bars is my 5th novel. So when, on a recent school visit, a young reader piped up, “Why do you have a parrot character?” I really ought not to have been caught unawares. By now, nearly 15 years after my debut novel, Climbing The Stairs was released, you’d have thought I’d be anticipating this question. But no.
On the spot, I came up with one answer.
When I was young, my brother found an almost-dead mynah by the side of the road. Crows were trying to peck it to death, he said, and he brought it home for me. My mom was a single mother and we didn’t have money to take it to a vet, but I nursed it back to health with the help of the man I consider my third grandfather. For a while, it rode on my shoulder – just as the parrot does in the novel – and it learned to say a few words, much to my delight. But one day, without any warning, when I woke up, I found it lying down, its body stiff, its eye unmoving.
“Born Behind Bars gave me a chance to resurrect the feathered friend I’d lost,” I said. And this is true. But in the days that have gone by, I have, found myself wondering if there are other equally valid reasons for the inclusion of a parrot.
I wrote Born Behind Bars when we were in lockdown. Perhaps some part of me wanted to fly away like a bird? Maybe this is why, this year, I’ve read at least 2 other delightful middle grade novels featuring birds – A Bird Will Soar by Alison Green Myers and The Flight of the Puffin by Ann Braden? Maybe my parrot, in a sense, symbolizes freedom, which is the main character years for most in Born Behind Bars.
Perhaps this second answer is a product of over-thinking… but the third and most important reason for the parrot’s presence in the novel that I can discern in retrospect is the element of humor that it adds. I’ve always admired the way authors like Christopher Paul Curtis and Jerry Spinelli are able to introduce a very authentic element of humor into novels that deal with very serious themes.
My first three novels – Climbing the Stairs, Island’s End and A Time to Dance – all have moments of laughter; but with The Bridge Home and Born Behind Bars, the humorous thread is vital. Perhaps it’s because as I wrote these two most recent novels, I was forced to confront part of my own childhood trauma – and the ability to hold onto joy, joy that was pure (unlike cruel jokes made at someone else’s expense), innocent and happy laughter – that was one of the most important ways in which I kept alive my strength, my courage, my dreams.
Humor even in desperate times keeps me from getting bitter – and in Born Behind Bars, this element grew organically, out of the character of Rani, who is, herself a spunky and funny heroine (and whose character is based on a childhood friend). The novel’s underlying themes of systemic prejudice, racist hatred and flaws in the criminal justice system in India are inescapably serious, and the joyful moments don’t take away from any of it. Instead, the moments of joy serve to sharpen the tragedy and horror of what the children live through in the novel.
When I read the audio for BORN BEHIND BARS, I briefly regretted putting the parrot in, because I had to practice and practice to get his voice right. It was hard! And fun, I’ll admit. We ended up recording the novel all the way through and then, separately, returning to just insert the parrot’s voice (with which my brilliant director, Paul Ruben helped).
When I was done with the novel, and the audio recording, I was glad the parrot had shown up in my head and heart. Because he keeps the protagonists’ hopes alive, he keeps their compassion alive, and most of all, he keeps their laughter alive in a way that only an animal, perhaps, can do.
I hope you’ll love him as much as I do, when you meet him between the pages of Born Behind Bars. And here below, in honor of the parrot in the novel, is a fun exercise that involves drawing a parrot in one of the many traditional Indian folk art styles.
Padma Venkatraman is the author of THE BRIDGE HOME, A TIME TO DANCE, ISLAND’S END and CLIMBING THE STAIRS, and, most recently, BORN BEHIND BARS (a JLG selection which has, so far, received starred reviews in Booklist and Kirkus; Nancy Paulsen Books, Penguin Random House). Her novels have won many awards including the Walter, Golden Kite, Crystal Kite, Nerdy, two South Asia Book Awards and more; have been shortlisted for over 20 state awards; received over 20 starred reviews; and appeared on numerous best book lists, including the ALA Notable, NYPL Best Book, Kirkus Best Book, and Booklist Editor’s Choice. Her poetry has been published in Poetry magazine. Before becoming an American author, Dr. Venkatraman spent time under the ocean and in rainforests in India, served as chief scientist on oceanographic research vessels where she was the only BIPOC female, and also worked as a teacher and diversity director. Visit her at www.padmavenkatraman.com and follow her on twitter (@padmatv); (@venkatraman.padma) on fb and ig.