Books

This Novelist Turns Her Favorite Birding Moments Into Teen Fiction

A mysterious bird drives the action in Adrienne Kisner's new novel about standing up for what you hold dear.

Adrienne Kisner easily recognized the bird she spotted a few years ago while dropping her kids off at school. The writer, professor, and residence hall director at Boston University had done some birding, thanks to a nudge from a colleague, and this was one of her favorite species. Still, she was struck by its perplexing song—one she'd never heard before. The odd melody stuck with her, and the bird went on to become a pseudo-character in Kisner's new young adult novel, The Confusion of Laurel Graham. (You'll have to read the book to learn its identity.)

The story revolves around Laurel Graham, a young, queer birder and nature photographer, who tries to track down the mysterious songster with her grandma. After Gran gets hit by a car and ends up in a coma, the teen comes to believe that her elder and the mystery bird share a soul, and that their lives are intertwined. Between fighting to save the local nature sanctuary, trying to win a photography competition with a shot of a Scarlet Tanager, and falling for her sworn enemy, Laurel pursues the strange passerine, hoping that finding it will save Gran's life. 

Kisner, who also authored the young adult novel Dear Rachel Maddow, says she writes primarily to entertain. She wasn’t trying to send a spiritual message with Laurel’s story—“teens can sniff out if you’re trying to be pedagogical,” she says—but it slipped in regardless. That’s not surprising, considering Kisner earned master’s and doctorate degrees in theology from Boston University and was a chaplain at Wheelock College until it merged with her alma mater in 2018. 

During her time at Wheelock, the writer befriended Jenne Powers, an avid birder and professor at the college. Kisner attributes much of her ornithological knowledge to Powers. As Kisner was beginning to outline The Confusion of Laurel Graham, Powers elevated her friend's birding game, starting by showing her how to use and adjust binoculars

Kisner fell in love with birding and even considered quitting writing to spend more time on it, but claims she’s not very good. “It's like catching Pokémon,” she says. “You gotta catch ’em all, and I’m not catching any of them.” Part of the problem, she explains, is that she often can't spot birds that other people point out. “Maybe everyone says they can see it, and it's like The Emperor's New Clothes,’” she jokes.

According to Powers, however, Kisner doesn’t give herself enough credit. “She's being self-deprecating,” Powers says. “Adrienne masters anything she sets out to do.” 

Just as Kisner deepened a friendship through birding, so too does her character Laurel. Throughout the book, the teen grows closer to Risa, her coworker who sabotaged her chance at winning the previous year’s photography competition. Yet as the two work together to defend the sanctuary and search out the bird in question, Laurel begins to fall for Risa and her dyed, crested haircut (modeled after the Wire-crested Thorntail, of course).

While Laurel's fictional community is largely accepting of this relationship, Kisner notes that some LGBTQ people feel underrepresented and uncomfortable in real birding spaces. “In any sort of niche group there can be discrimination. We’re not all one—its not this utopia,” she says. Laurel’s story provides a break from these tensions, envisioning a world where queer birders feel safe and respected.

That said, Kisner isn’t using her pages to preach. She just wants to tell a strong story—though she certainly wouldn’t mind if she inspired a teen to start birding.

The Confusion of Laurel Graham, by Adrienne Kisner, 288 pages, $17.99. Buy it on IndieBound.

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