Cover image for The unsung hero of Birdsong USA / Brenda Woods.
The unsung hero of Birdsong USA / Brenda Woods.
Publication Information:
New York, NY : Nancy Paulsen Books, [2019]
Physical Description:
194 pages ; 22 cm
Gabriel, twelve, gains new perspective when he becomes friends with Meriwether, a Black World War II hero who has recently returned to the unwelcoming Jim Crow South.


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WOO Book Junior Collection

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The Coretta Scott King Honor-winning author tells the moving story of the friendship between a young white boy and a Black WWII veteran who has recently returned to the unwelcoming Jim Crow South.

On Gabriel's twelfth birthday, he gets a new bike--and is so excited that he accidentally rides it right into the path of a car. Fortunately, a Black man named Meriwether pushes him out of the way just in time, and fixes his damaged bike. As a thank you, Gabriel gets him a job at his dad's auto shop. Gabriel's dad hires him with some hesitation, however, anticipating trouble with the other mechanic, who makes no secret of his racist opinions.
Gabriel and Meriwether become friends, and Gabriel learns that Meriwether drove a tank in the Army's all-Black 761st Tank Battalion in WWII. Meriwether is proud of his service, but has to keep it a secret because talking about it could be dangerous. Sadly, danger finds Meriwether, anyway, when his family receives a frightening threat. The South being the way it is, there's no guarantee that the police will help--and Gabriel doesn't know what will happen if Meriwether feels forced to take the law into his own hands.

Author Notes

Brenda Woods was born in Ohio, grew up in Southern California, and attended California State University, Northridge. Her award-winning books for young readers include The Blossoming Universe of Violet Diamond (a CCBC choice and a Kirkus Reviews Best Book); the Coretta Scott King Honor winner The Red Rose Box ; the ALAN Pick Saint Louis Armstrong Beach ; and VOYA Top Shelf Fiction selection Emako Blue . Woods's numerous awards and honors include the Judy Lopez Memorial Book Award, the FOCAL International Award, and the ILA Children's Choice Young Adult Fiction Award. She lives in the Los Angeles area. To learn more, visit

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

Woods (Zoe in Wonderland) contemplates American history in this sobering novel set in Birdsong, S.C., during the summer of 1946. On the day that Gabriel, who is white, receives a new bicycle for his 12th birthday, he runs a red light and is nearly struck by a car. Meriwether Hunter, an African-American mechanic who is looking for work, saves him. Gabriel helps Meriwether, a U.S. Army veteran who can fix almost anything, land a job at his father's auto shop-much to the frustration of another mechanic, who is white, "mean as a raccoon with rabies," and rumored to have friends in the KKK. Hearing Meriwether's stories, and taking his advice to "try to see the goings-on of life through more eyes than just your own," Gabriel is made aware of the divide between the lives of the town's white and black residents, but his new knowledge might not be enough to save Meriwether and his family from harm. Even readers who have been taught about segregation in the South are likely to deepen their knowledge of the nuanced history through the novel's handling of how white and African-American veterans were treated differently after WWII. The characters of impressionable Gabriel and Meriwether, whose patience is tried by society's unfair rules, ring true as the story shows that "the world, including Birdsong USA, isn't always pretty." Ages 10-up. (Jan.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

New York Review of Books Review

these days, parents like to think of themselves as responsible for every aspect of their children's happiness and well-being. But often overlooked in this 21st-century conception of parent/child dynamics is the powerful sense of responsibility children feel for adults. A desire to protect their elders is particularly strong during the tween years, when the darkness and complexity of the world come into focus, but the magical thinking of childhood still offers the comfort of solutions. These four middlegrade novels capture something moving and seemingly eternal: When trouble strikes the grown-ups around them, children instinctively put themselves on the emotional front lines. A prime example is Riley James, the 11year-old narrator of Greg Howard's the WHISPERS (Putnam, 226 pp., $16.99; ages 10 and up). After his mother goes missing, Riley sets out to find the magical voices from a local legend that he believes can help him bring her back. A self-proclaimed "mama's boy... without his mama," Riley struggles with bed-wetting plus another "condition" - being attracted to boys - that some in his small, Christian town consider cause for shame. Riley heads into the woods to find the Whispers, accompanied by a "Stand by Me"-like band of misfits including the overweight Gary, his only friend; Gary's tag-along little brother, Carl; and the "Redneck Superhero" Dylan Mathews, an older boy whose sympathy (or perhaps empathy) for Riley's situation makes him a winsome champion. "The Whispers" does not turn out to be the fable it at first seems, but Howard pulls off the trick of making Riley's real quest even more heart-wrenching than the fantasy that drives it. This taut, moving tale delves beyond loss into issues of sexuality, conformity and self-acceptance. Riley's relationship with his missing mother, whom we see in flashbacks teaching him new vocabulary words, is particularly well drawn. "Use it in a sentence, Button," she tells him, encouraging Riley to redefine his world through language - a lesson he takes to heart after she goes missing. "The Whispers" is a masterful exploration into the power of storytelling but also its dangers, including self-denial and escapism. escapism is the guiding philosophy of Rodeo and his 12-year-old daughter, Coyote, the titular heroine of Dan Gemeinhart's THE REMARKABLE JOURNEY OF COYOTE SUNRISE (Holt, 352 pp" $16.99; ages 9 to 12). Since the death of Coyote's mother and sisters five years earlier, the pair have traveled around the country in an old school bus, calling each other by hippie road names and following their hankerings for taco trucks or sandwiches. But for all his whimsy and free-spiritedness, Rodeo has a few "no-go's," as he calls them, including ever returning to their hometown, Poplin Springs, Wash. Coyote is protective of her father and accepts their life of wandering, hiding her loneliness and grief behind bravado. But when she learns that developers are tearing up the local park where her mother and sisters buried a memory box, she enlists an eclectic group of fellow travelers to trick Rodeo into driving her there. Coyote's bold, engaging voice pops off the page and propels this road-trip novel through a series of charming, if unlikely, adventures. Some of the secondary characters serve the plot a little too neatly, but there are exceptions, like the boy escaping domestic violence who becomes Coyote's protector and friend. Gemeinhart infuses the story with moments of lyrical writing and folksy wisdom served up with a dollop of girl power. Coyote's determination to face reality rather than run from it ultimately allows her to heal not just herself but her father. the protagonist of Brenda Woods's the UNSUNG HERO OF BIRDSONG, U.S.A. (Nancy Paulsen, 194 pp., $16.99; ages 10 and up) also protects a cherished adult by confronting reality, in this case the reality of racism in his segregated postwar Southern town. After Meriwether Hunter, an unemployed African-American mechanic and World War II veteran, saves Gabriel Haberlin's life, the 12-year-old tries to return the favor by getting him a job at his father's garage. But as his friendship with Meriwether deepens, Gabriel starts to see the casual racism of friends and family in a new light, and after Meriwether confronts a bigoted fellow employee at the garage, Gabriel must save his savior from a potentially violent end. Woods casts a much needed spotlight on the history of African-American troops in World War II, including the all-black 761st Tank Battalion, which took part in the Battle of the Bulge. Meriwether embodies the dignity and frustration of these men who fought for their country overseas only to return home to prejudice and oppression, especially in the Jim Crow-era South. An underdeveloped villain and a hard-toswallow turn of events in the crucial scene threaten to weaken this important story. But Woods regains control with a realistic ending that incorporates the Great Migration and shows the limits of Gabriel's power to protect his friend. genesis Anderson, the heroine of Alicia D. Williams's stunning debut novel, geneSIS BEGINS AGAIN (Caitlyn Dlouhy/Atheneum, 382 pp., $17.99; ages 9 to 13), is another character who grapples with the legacy of race in America and the challenge of righting adult wrongs. Thirteen-year-old Genesis is tired of her family being constantly evicted, so when her alcoholic father moves them out of Detroit to a middleclass home in the suburbs and promises to start attending Alcoholics Anonymous, she's cautiously hopeful life will change. But Genesis and her family are still haunted by the past - including her darkskinned father's self-loathing and grief over a childhood tragedy and the prejudice of her light-skinned mother's family, who use "the paper bag test" to judge acceptable skin color (a test Genesis herself doesn't pass). When her father starts drinking again, eviction notices appear, and her parents' marriage falters, Genesis tries to fix her family by changing herself; by lightening her skin and straightening her hair, she hopes to make her family, and especially her father, proud of her - and by extension, themselves. In "Genesis Begins Again," Williams explores racism within the black community, creating a fully realized family with a history of complex relationships to one another, and to their own skin colors. The suburban school where Genesis finds herself navigating a diverse cast of friends and foes is no less vivid; a music teacher who introduces Genesis to blues greats like Billie Holiday and inspires her to sing in the school talent show is particularly memorable. But the standout voice in this tender and empowering novel - reminiscent of Toni Morrison's "The Bluest Eye," but appropriate for a much younger audience - belongs to Genesis herself, as she discovers a truth that we adults would do well to remember: Growing up isn't just about taking responsibility for the happiness and well-being of others. It's also about learning what you can and should fix, and what you cannot. As Genesis discovers, there is no true reinvention without self-acceptance. Katherine marsh's most recent middle-grade novel is "Nowhere Boy," a 2018 Times Children's Notable Book.



CHAPTER 1   One funny thing about life and all the stuff that happens while you're living it is that mostly you only see it through your own eyes, that is, unless you decide to try to see things through the eyes of someone else. Then, you have four eyes, and looking at things with more eyes than just your own lets you see things more clearly--maybe even see things the way they really are, not just the way you want them to be.      That's what Meriwether claimed, and now I know he sure was right. But then again, seems like        Meriwether was right about a whole mess of stuff.      My name is Gabriel, like the angel, but I'm sure not ready for heaven. I don't have any brothers or sisters, and at times I wish I did. And we aren't rich, but we're a ways from being poor, and being a ways from being poor is how I got the bicycle, and having the bicycle is how I met Meriwether, and meeting Meriwether is how I learned that seeing life through more eyes than just the two on my face can make some things a lot easier to understand.      It was 1946, just another quiet Sunday in summertime, when I met him in a town not too far off from Charleston, South Carolina--a town named Birdsong. I'd just turned twelve.             CHAPTER 2   "Hot diggity dog!"      It was a brand-spanking-new Schwinn Autocycle Deluxe with a built-in electric light--a present for my birthday. I couldn't stop grinning. I tested the brakes, traced the handlebars and frame with my fingers, and ran my hand across the seat.      "Gabriel Haberlin, stop pettin' that bicycle like it's a puppy dog," Mama said with a smile. In one hand, she held the dirt-stained gardening gloves she wore when she tended the vegetables in what, even though World War II had been over for nearly a year, she still called her vic­tory garden. The other hand reached up, brushed her long blond hair out of her face, and tucked it behind her ears. Daddy curled his tanned, freckled arm around her shoul­der. They were like a real pretty photograph right then, my mama, Agatha, and my daddy, Jake, and I wished we had a roll of film for our camera so I could take a pic­ture of them and some of my new bicycle, but we didn't. Mama tended to be forgetful about things like that.       "Go on and take it for a ride, Gabriel," Daddy encour­aged me.      So I popped up the kickstand and climbed on--all the while admiring the bright blue and white color and the perfect chrome gleaming in the sun. "Can I go show Patrick? He won't believe it 'less he sees it." Patrick's my best friend and lives across town.      "Sure, but you be careful, now," Daddy warned as he gave the back of the bike a gentle push. Sunday was his only day off, and the newspaper, which I knew he couldn't wait to get back to reading, was tucked under his arm.      "I will," I promised, and off I pedaled, glancing back once at my parents' happy faces.      "You be sure and be home way b'fore supper!" Mama hollered. "Pineapple upside-down cake you asked for is in the oven! And Cousin Polly and Them are comin' from Charleston!"      Cousin Polly is Daddy's first cousin, which I've been told makes her my first cousin once removed, and Them includes her husband, Teddy Waldrop, and their sixteen-year-old daughter, Tink, whose real name is Theodora but most people never call her that because if they do, Tink can be counted on to blow at least one fuse, sometimes more. Them also includes Teddy's mama, Auntie Rita, who claims to possess heavenly insight, meaning she has a deep understanding of spiritual things, but Mama and especially Cousin Polly don't always seem to believe her.      The fact that they were visiting today had me feeling extremely happy, because whenever Cousin Polly and Them barrel through our front door, the usually quiet house comes alive with joking and laughing, and Cousin Polly always turns the music up loud. And now I was dou­bly happy my cousin Tink was coming, because Tink and her two-toned green Kodak camera are like macaroni and cheese--almost always together. That she'd take more than a few pictures of me posed and smiling with my new bicycle was a sure thing, and that would make it a cinch for me to remember this day for the rest of my life.      "And tell Patrick he's welcome for cake and ice cream!" Mama added.      "Yes ma'am, I will!" I shouted.      It was so hot, it almost felt like the sun was sitting right on top of me, but as I raced, the air cooled me off. Soon, I was flying downhill, soaring like a swallow-tailed kite bird, speeding so fast I didn't even have to pedal. I glanced up, wondering if this was anything close to what my uncle Earl felt like when he was in his P-51 Mustang way up there in the sky. Now and then, I pictured myself becoming a pilot just like him.      Twelve is still kind of a baby age, I caught myself thinking as I rode along. Thirteen sure sounds two tons better. And then I almost laughed. Here I was just turning twelve and already wishing I'd crossed the finish line so I could start thirteen.      Auntie Rita has told everyone over and over since I was a little boy, "Gabriel's got the eyes of an old soul." And just that morning I'd studied my face in the mirror, searching for whatever it is Auntie Rita sees when she stares into my eyes. The way she says it, in that whispery voice of hers, makes it sound like being an old soul is a good thing. Right then, I wondered, If I am one, how exactly did that come to be, an old soul in a young body? But when the spooky Spanish moss that sways from the branches of the old oak trees that line some of Birdsong's streets tickled my face, I laughed out loud and stopped thinking about all that.      Birdsong, South Carolina, is a mostly ordinary place. The closest real city is Charleston, and one trip there is all it takes to make you understand the difference between a real city and our town. Even so, we don't drive the seventy-five miles to Charleston very often, because Birdsong, USA, has pretty much everything we need.      Main Street has a market, a post office, and a string of shops, including a five-and-dime. Plus, there's Mr. Summerlin's drugstore, which also has a soda fountain, and we even have a movie theater. Each end of town has a gas station--including one that has a garage for repairing automobiles plus a lot for selling cars that is owned and operated by my daddy, Jake Haberlin.      Mama called Birdsong a peaceful, pretty place, and most folks, including me, agreed with her.      But some things in the town of Birdsong, USA, were about to change.   CHAPTER 3   Certain things should never ever happen, especially on your birthday when you're riding your new bicycle for the first time down Main Street. And you're so busy showing off and watching people turn their heads to take notice of you that you're not paying attention to the stop­light ahead that has just turned red.      Then suddenly, from the corner of your eye, you catch a glimpse of a car in the intersection heading straight at you--the yellow Buick Roadmaster Mr. Babcock bought from Daddy for his wife, Betty, just the other day. And suddenly you realize you don't have time to swerve out of its way--so for an instant you figure you're definitely about to enter the pearly gates of heaven. And the only words that come out of your mouth are "Holy moly!"      Certain things like that should never happen. But they did.      Then, in a flash, you get extremely lucky. Someone pushes you out of the way so that you and the big yellow car don't collide, but instead you take a very bad dive and wind up crumpled on the street.      The first thing I saw when I opened my eyes was a sign.                Need Work                Honest                Good at fixing things      The next thing I saw was the face of the man who had the sign hanging around his neck. He was colored, and he looked sort of familiar.      "You okay?" he asked.      I sat up and shrugged. "Dunno. Think so." One of my elbows was skinned and bleeding a little.      He reached down to help me up.      "Thank you, mister," I said, and tried to stand.      "Careful, now . . . Could be something broken," the man warned.      "You the one who saved me?" I asked.      "I suppose you could say that," he replied with a slight nod of his head.      "Thank you," I told him. "Thank you a lot, mister."      Once I was standing, I could see my prized possession--the car had missed me but not my Schwinn Autocycle Deluxe. The handlebars were twisted, some spokes were bent, and the light was dangling loose.      "Not too bad," he said, following my eyes. "I can fix it for you if you like. Shouldn't take but a few minutes. Got my tools right here."      I read the sign around his neck again. "I don't have nuthin' but a dime, mister," I told him.      He grinned and replied, "Save your money, young man."      Right then a woman hollering words you usually only hear in church interrupted us. "Oh, my Jesus! Lord have mercy on my soul!"      It was Betty Babcock. She had stumbled out of her car in her high-heeled shoes and was quickly making her way over to me. Other people joined her, and soon, like pigeons pecking at a handful of tossed bread crumbs, they formed a huddle around me.      "I'm fine as could be," I told them.      The red-faced butcher from DeVear's grocery store slipped his arms around me and practically carried me over to the curb. The gawking audience trailed us, ques­tions flying from their mouths.      "Are you dizzy?"      I sat down. "No."      "Can you see?"      "Better than a hawk."      "Is anything broken?"      I'm not Superman with X-ray vision, I wanted to reply but didn't. Besides, from what Patrick had told me about how bad it hurt when he fell off his roof and cracked his arm bone in two, I figured nothing was broken. "Don't think so," I answered.      Then Mrs. Babcock started yelling again. "My light was green! Tell 'em it was green, Gabriel Haberlin! Tell 'em, please!" Her hair, which Cousin Polly and Auntie Rita claim is not a gift from God but comes instead from her Charleston hairdresser, looked like a bright yellow bird's nest.      "It's true," I told them. "I wasn't payin' attention. It's not her fault . . . not at all. Plus, I'm truly fine as could be."      That was when Mrs. Betty Babcock got down on her knees in the middle of Main Street, closed her eyes, reached up toward heaven, and shouted three times in a row, "Hallelujah and thank you, Lord!"      It was then I noticed Rosie Riley in the crowd. Rosie is one of the nicest girls at school, and when she laughs, it's loud and not pretend. She's a year older than me and is the eldest child of Howard Riley, MD, and claims she is going to be a doctor just like him.      Concern was swimming in her eyes. "Are you all right, Gabriel?" she asked. "Maybe I should go get my daddy."      Having her attention made me grin. "You kiddin'? It'd take more than this to damage my armor." I bent my elbow and flexed my muscle, producing a small bulge. "See?"      A smile parted her lips. "Good," Rosie Riley replied.      Faces that had previously been full of distress now appeared relieved, and I heard a few snickers.      "I'm fine," I repeated. "Plus, today's my birthday."      Birthday wishes spouted quickly from here and there, but only Rosie's words sounded like a song.      "Happy birthday, Gabriel. I'm glad you weren't hurt. Woulda been a shame for you to get smashed up bad, especially on your birthday. See ya," Rosie said, and then she turned and walked away. As usual, my eyes couldn't help but follow her. She was wearing blue plaid shorts and penny loafers without socks, but I zeroed in on the dance of her straw-colored ponytail as she pranced off.      And knowing that Rosie Riley was glad I hadn't bitten the dust made me grin some more. Excerpted from The Unsung Hero of Birdsong, USA by Brenda Woods All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.