Free as a Bird Teachers’ Guide


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.


Governor General’s Award for Children’s Literature
CLA Young Adult Book Award
Snow Willow
VOYA Top-Shelf Fiction for Middle School
BC Book Prizes
IBBY Awards
IBBY Collection for Young People with Disabilities
Supplementary Downloads


Gina McMurchy-Barber has written a powerful novel.

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

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

Canadian Teacher 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

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

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

About the Author