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Young Adult Fiction Disabilities & Special Needs

Free as a Bird

by (author) Gina McMurchy-Barber

Dundurn Press
Initial publish date
Feb 2010
Disabilities & Special Needs, Self-Esteem & Self-Reliance, Prejudice & Racism
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Feb 2010
    List Price
  • eBook

    Publish Date
    Feb 2010
    List Price

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Recommended Age, Grade, and Reading Levels

  • Age: 12 to 15
  • Reading age: 12 to 15


Short-listed for the 2010 Governor General’s Award for Children’s Literature, the 2010 Snow Willow Award and the 2011 CLA Young Adult Book Award
Born with Down syndrome, Ruby Jean Sharp comes from a time when being a developmentally disabled person could mean growing up behind locked doors and barred windows and being called names like "retard" and "moron." When Ruby Jean’s caregiver and loving grandmother dies, her mother takes her to Woodlands School in New Westminster, British Columbia, and rarely visits.
As Ruby Jean herself says: "Can’t say why they called it a school – a school’s a place you go for learnin an then after you get to go home. I never learnt much bout ledders and numbers, an I sure never got to go home."
It’s here in an institution that opened in 1878 and was originally called the Provincial Lunatic Asylum that Ruby Jean learns to survive isolation, boredom, and every kind of abuse. Just when she can hardly remember if she’s ever been happy, she learns a lesson about patience and perseverance from an old crow.

About the author

Gina McMurchy-Barber is the author of three previous books in the Peggy Henderson adventure series: Reading the Bones (shortlisted for the Silver Birch Award), Broken Bones, and Bone Deep. Her novel Free as a Bird was a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award. She is also a recipient of the Governor General’s Award for Excellence in Teaching Canadian History. Gina lives in Surrey, British Columbia.

Gina McMurchy-Barber's profile page


  • Commended, IBBY Collection for Young People with Disabilities
  • VOYA Top-Shelf Fiction for Middle School
  • Short-listed, CLA Young Adult Book Award
  • Short-listed, Snow Willow
  • Short-listed, Governor General's Award for Children's Literature
  • IBBY Awards
  • Short-listed, BC Book Prizes

Editorial Reviews

Gina McMurchy-Barber has written a powerful novel.

Resource Links

[The author] brings a sense of empathy and compassion to the storytelling... highly recommended for mature young readers.

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 the case in many places.

Canadian Children's Book News

Ruby Jeans unique voice coupled with the hardships thrown her way make for a poignant novel. Lessons of hope, perseverance and self-restraint are told by someone who was simply en retard.

What If? Magazine

Without lecturing and through excellent use of narrative, this author renders the reader to be Ruby Jean. And through this exquisite experience, empathy and understanding flourish. McMurchy-Barber uses some of her experiences with her sister with Down syndrome to assist her in finding voice for this must-tell story.

Bloom magazine

As a tale of privation, Free as a Bird reads like Janet Fitch's novel White Oleander, but for young people. There's brightness at the end, but getting there is grim.

Vancouver Sun

Ruby Jeans story at Woodlands is terrible because its so true.

Canadian Teacher magazine

Librarian Reviews

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.

Free as a Bird

Born with Down syndrome, Ruby Jean Sharp comes from a time when being developmentally disabled could mean being locked up and called names like “retard.” After Ruby Jean’s grandma dies, her mom leaves her at Woodlands School, which has little contact with outside services. Ruby Jean survives isolation and abuse, but when a new life skills worker enters her life, things begin to change.

Source: The Canadian Children’s Book Centre. Best Books for Kids & Teens. 2011.

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