Behind the genderless utopia of “Every Bird a Prince” with Jenn Reese
The author speaks with SLJ about challenging gender roles, empowering young readers on the Ace Spectrum, and tackling self-doubt.
In their astonishing contemporary fantasy Every bird is a prince, Jenn Reese tells the story of Eren, a seventh grader, who must claim her truth in order to save the magical birds and her loved ones from ancient evils that lurk both in the woods and within themselves. The author speaks with SLJ about questioning gender roles, empowering young readers on the aces spectrum, and fighting those eternal whispers of self-doubt.
Gender identity and questioning are central themes in your book, including the magical birds they are called. What do you hope to show readers about pronouns and gender?
This question makes me laugh a little, because modern intermediate-level readers often have a greater facility with pronouns and gender spectra than us older folks. I never suppose I show them or teach them anything on those fronts. That said, personally, I don’t like the strict gender binary that permeates most of society. It made me happy to create a magical forest kingdom that had somehow completely escaped the idea of genre. It’s not everyone’s vision of a utopia, but it’s mine. And I hope some readers find this idea of freedom from gender expectations and biases refreshing as well.
Where did you find the inspiration for this concept of Eren’s regular life in seventh grade becoming fantastic?
With this book, I knew I wanted to talk about the less obvious types of societal pressure that we all face. Most of us can recognize bullies and understand that they are trying to hurt us. But often the most insidious doubts and pressures come from our parents, friends, ourselves, and even society at large. These are harder to spot and harder to fight, especially when they come from people who truly love us.
So in Every bird is a prince, I’ve made these forces easier to see (and more fun to write about) by embodying them in the “vile frost fangs”, wolf-like creatures whose cruel whispers echo right through the characters’ heads and undermine their strength and their will. To resist them, Eren and Alex need to understand each other and believe that their true selves are worth defending, the same way we all resist those kinds of pressures in the real world. But using fantasy creatures has allowed me to write fun fight scenes, and I love writing fight scenes!
How was the writing process for you? Did you always know you wanted this to be a mid-level novel?
Writing A game of fox and squirrels was one of the most rewarding projects I’ve ever undertaken, and I wanted to keep the therapy ball rolling Every bird is a prince exploring aromantism and asexuality, identities that I wish I had known as a child. These identities can be particularly difficult to understand at this age because many young people also experience puberty around the same time, and puberty is a confusing apocalypse on so many fronts. It can be very difficult to disentangle the truth from the onslaught of messages children are bombarded with daily.
I think a lot of young readers have heard of aromantism and asexuality at this point, but if they haven’t, I want this book to give them that language, so they at least know that it is an option. When I talk with my friends in the ace community, “I wish I had known” is a common refrain. Words – and identity labels – have power, and I knew I wanted to empower mid-level readers in this specific way.
The term “prince” is usually associated with masculinity; why did you choose it for animals that have no gender distinction in this world?
I don’t like the gendered job titles at all. I don’t like “prince” and “princess” any more than I like “actor” and “actress” or “author” and “author”. I could have chosen other words entirely, but I wanted to evoke the mythical meaning of fairy tales, and in Western literature at least, fairy tales are riddled with monarchies. We hear the word “prince” in the context of a story and images of castles, fancy dress and magic come to mind. I wanted these associations! And I especially wanted my birds to wear little crowns, because… how could I not? But the truth is that I am uncomfortable with the idolatry of monarchies and their prevalence in our stories for young readers.
In Every bird is a prince, I wanted princes but not kings or queens, and not serfs or peasants or nobility of any other rank. Every bird is equal, and every bird is royal, because that’s how I want us to see each other. We are all worthy of this honor and respect. A family is not born special, we all are.
And we should all be able to wear crowns whenever we want.
The bird prince Oriti-ti shares some pearls of wisdom, such as “when strength flows from you, not from you, then no one can take it away.” Why were birds your choice of animals to be important characters throughout the story?
I had an encounter with a bird when I first moved to Oregon. Within a week of owning my first home, a cedar waxwing flew into my sliding glass door and was knocked unconscious (the bird was fine, don’t worry!). I panicked, called the local wildlife center and put the bird in a box to recover for a few hours. When I finally opened the box, this bird glared at me, gave me a stern speech, then flew away in anger. I knew they would one day be a character in one of my books.
Birds are fragile, but they are fierce. They are often caged, but will forever represent freedom. Also, birds are everywhere. Most readers will have fed a pigeon or seen a songbird at a feeder or a goose running away. I loved the idea of these tiny, colorful creatures going up against extremely bigger and more vicious enemies.
Initially, Eren’s muttered thoughts to herself are mostly negative talk such as, “I did this to myself. This is what I deserve” and “I should give myself up”. How do these thoughts change as Eren grows and changes throughout the novel?
The sad reality is that we will never stop hearing the whispers. It’s something I talk about in the book, and something I certainly experienced as an adult. We can defeat our personal frostfangs, but they will always come back. The best thing we can do – and that’s what Eren learns to do – is to start asking ourselves if these whispers are the actual truth, or just doubts and fears of ourselves or others. We can’t stop hearing the whispers, but we can stop listening to them. As Eren begins to understand and believe in herself, she is better able to withstand their effects. In short, she begins to develop better coping strategies… which is often the best we can do for the kind of battles that never end.
Eren finds his strength weapon to fight the Frost Fangs with his bike, and Alex finds strength with his ukulele and singing. What or where would you draw your strength from?
Ha! That’s an excellent question. I think some of my answers might be a bit more personal than I’d like to admit in this interview, so I’ll just say art. I’ve wanted to be an artist since I was little, and it always gives me immense joy to draw little birds with crowns, or even use graphics to create stickers and bookmarks. If I could attack frost fangs with my knowledge of fonts and kerning, I’d be invincible!
Prince Oriti-ti says, “Fear may be contagious, but so is bravery. What can readers of your book learn about bravery and overcoming their fears?
I hesitate to say that I’m trying to teach anything explicitly, but I’d love it if readers find strength in any of these ideas:
1) That almost everyone hears “whispers”. Not just us, but also our peers, our parents and our teachers, our heroes and our enemies. We all have our struggles.
2) That some days you might lose the whisper fight, and that’s okay.
3) That the best way, and perhaps the only way, to “combat” these whisperings is to anchor ourselves in our truths. To know ourselves and find strength in that knowledge.
4) That knowing our own truths often helps others find theirs.