The Theory of Hummingbirds by Michelle Kadarusman

“Hummingbirds and angels don’t need two good feet. They have wings.”

(The Theory of Hummingbirds)

The Theory of Hummingbirds by Michelle Kadarusman (UQP) is an intriguing middle fiction novel with appealing, idiosyncratic protagonists Alba and Levi. It has an important message, told in a refreshing, imaginative way.

Thank you for speaking to PaperbarkWords, Michelle.

Hello, Joy! Thank you for having me on PaperbarkWords.

I see that The Theory of Hummingbirds was originally published in 2017. What is the novel’s history?

The Theory of Hummingbirds is inspired in part by my experience of having a childhood disability and it was my first middle grade novel. I wrote it while living in my current home of Toronto, so it was originally published in North America in 2017. A Spanish version has since been published in South America in 2019. I am so thrilled that UQP are now publishing the story for Australian readers.

Michelle Kadarusman

What is your background and where are you based now?

I am originally from Australia. My mum is Aussie and my dad is Indonesian. I grew up in Melbourne before living in Indonesia throughout my 20s. I moved to Canada in 2000 with my Canadian husband. But I am delighted to say that now – after 20 long Canadian winters! – we are moving back to Australia, once COVID-19 allows.

Along with writing for children I have worked with books in other ways as well. In Toronto I founded a literacy charity called Raising Readers that operated in public schools from 2006 to 2018. The mission of Raising Readers was to spark and nurture the magic of books and reading in early childhood, so I spent twelve wonderful years having fun with kids and stories. I also worked for the Canadian literary prize, the Scotiabank Giller Prize, as the submissions and marketing manager from 2011 to 2018. I currently write full time.

Could you please introduce your major characters in The Theory of Hummingbirds?

Alba and Levi are in grade four and are best friends. They have bonded over many lunchtimes spent in the library or sitting-out sports due to Alba’s clubfoot and Levi’s asthma.

Alba is excited at the prospect of finally becoming what she imagines is “normal” once her cast is removed after having corrective surgery for her clubfoot. She has grand ambitions of running in the school cross country race.

Levi, meanwhile, has become preoccupied with Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time and the notion that the school librarian has discovered a wormhole in her office.

As happens sometimes with friends, their interests are changing, and they each feel slighted by the other’s disinterest in their new plans.

How have Alba and Levi developed resilience?

Because of Alba’s clubfoot and Levi’s asthma they haven’t been able to do many of the physical activities with the other kids at school. Instead they have teamed up and developed their own little club. They love birding and collect facts about hummingbirds. As happens with kids who are limited in what they can do physically, they turn instead to more intellectual pursuits.

How have you incorporated Albert Einstein into the story?

I included a quote from Albert Einstein at the front of the book:

Look deep into nature and you will understand everything better

I am deeply influenced by nature and all that can be learned from it. I’m one of those people who can stare at the dappled sunlight through the treetops for a silly amount of time. Nature is where I find my centre and inspiration, so the quote spoke to me personally, but I also felt it fit well with the themes in the story. Hummingbirds are used throughout the story as a metaphor for Alba’s gained insights and to help her to look at her challenges differently.

I also included Albert Einstein’s theory about gravitational waves – something that sets Levi’s imagination on fire. His mind is full of the magical possibilities that this theory purposes, that it could cause ripples in space and time. He gets a little carried away with it, but I wanted to highlight how mind blowing these concepts might be for kids like Levi. It’s kids like him who may become the scientists who discover new ways for us to look at the world. As the librarian character, Ms. Sharma, says to Levi, it’s the people who have no boundary to their curiosity – who are brave enough to imagine, to explore and find answers – who change science fiction into science fact.

Why have you used the library as a central setting?

To me, the library is always the heart of a school. It is a sanctuary for the characters, but I also wanted to show that fun stuff happens in the library too. It is where imagination is ignited and where wild ideas like wormholes and time travel can be read about.

What is your favourite hummingbird fact?

The first line of the book is: “Hummingbirds can’t walk.” I’m not sure why this small fact stunned me so much when I first read it, but I knew it was the perfect fact to begin the story and set Alba upon her journey of self-discovery.

Hummingbirds are amazing little creatures – they can travel for thousands of kilometres, fly backwards, hover, and yet they can’t do the simple thing of walking. I hoped that it would illustrate for Alba, and the readers, that abilities present in all kinds of different ways.

I saw my first hummingbird while staying at a friend’s cabin by a lake outside of Toronto. In this part of the world a lot of people put out hummingbird feeders in the spring and summer. I actually heard it before I saw it. The vibrating humming noise is unmistakable. But then to watch it dart and dive toward the feeder was magnificent. They are so tiny but so powerful at the same time. And the males have colourful feathers that flash in the sunlight. To me it was like witnessing something magical, like seeing a fairy.

The Theory of Hummingbirds is a wonderful title and idea. Could you please explain it?

Thank you! I liked the way it played to both Alba’s and Levi’s separate paths in the story but ultimately brought them back together again. Levi is newly captivated by physicists’ theories like ‘The Theory of Everything’, a unifying theory to explain the universe. Alba is on her own personal quest of self-discovery, a journey that she is gently led along by hummingbirds. Hummingbirds are also a special interest the friends have always shared, so when Alba ultimately comes up with her theory of self-love, by calling it the ‘Theory of Hummingbirds’, it pays homage to their past friendship while at the same time acknowledges Levi’s new interests and signifies a new chapter for their friendship.

How have you incorporated kindness and hope into the novel?

We are often quick to tell our kids to be kind to others, but it’s important for kids to be kind to themselves too. I wanted to write a story that highlighted the theme of self-acceptance so I used Alba’s clubfoot as a way to illustrate the theme. I used a clubfoot because I also had a clubfoot as a child, but most of us have things that at some point have made us feel different, unloved or left-out. Sometimes they are physical, like Alba’s clubfoot, but it can also be something hidden and unseen. Often it is our own self-exile that keeps us feeling like outsiders. We are so pre-occupied to fit in and be normal, but what is normal and does it really matter? The antidote to all of this of course is to love ourselves, be kind to ourselves, and we’re then more likely to be kind to others as well.

In writing the novel I also hoped to celebrate the differences we all share, no matter what the diversity may be.

What else have you written?

I have written two other middle grade novels. 

Girl of the Southern Sea is set in Jakarta, Indonesia,and follows 14-year-old Nia who lives in the slums along the train tracks. She wants to attend high school and become a writer but her family can’t afford it. Nia finds empowerment in writing and telling stories about a mythical Javanese princess, Dewi Kadita. It was published in North America in 2019 and UQP will release it in Australia in early 2021.

My most recent middle grade novel, Music for Tigers, was released internationally in April this year. It is set in Tasmania. A young Canadian violinist, Louisa, is sent to her mother’s bush camp in the Tarkine rainforest where she discovers her family have been stewards of a secret sanctuary for endangered and extinct marsupials, but the camp and animals are now threatened by mining and logging. There’s a bit of mystery in this one so I won’t give away any spoilers! The hardcover is currently available in Australia and a paperback release will come next year.

While the settings of my stories are different, the themes of empowerment, self-acceptance and friendship are consistent. I also tend to weave nature and human themes together quite a lot. I am continually fascinated by nature and the environment – how we treat it and interact with it – I think it informs so much about who we are.

What are you writing now or next?

My current work in progress is back in Indonesia, this time drawing upon an experience my brother and I had while living in Surabaya of liberating a captive orangutan. The story will centre on a captive orangutan and two middle schoolers. One is a budding animal and environmental activist, the other is the orangutan’s keeper. It will delve into the palm oil deforestation, the illegal exotic pet trade, identity and belonging.

What have you read recently that you would like to recommend?

With the state of the world as it is, I’ve been able to catch up on some middle grade books I’ve been long wanting to read. I just finished Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson. This book is highly acclaimed for very good reason. It is brilliant, heartbreaking and beautiful. From the first page you are swept into Woodson’s dreamy poetic verse and her vivid memories. The book is an almost sensory experience that so masterfully evokes her life in Ohio, South Carolina and Brooklyn, and summers spent in the South. If you haven’t caught this one yet, it is a must read.

Thank you very much for your thoughtful responses, Michelle. Apart from enjoying your story, I loved learning that a group of hummingbirds is called a ‘charm’, a ‘glittering’ and a ‘hover’.

All the best with The Theory of Hummingbirds and your other books.

The link to the book page on UQP’s website is as follows – https://www.uqp.com.au/books/the-theory-of-hummingbirds.

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