For Ages
8 to 12

An instant USA Today bestseller! From the award-winning author of Song for a Whale comes a poignant and heartwarming tale about a girl who discovers a pair of endangered birds about to lay eggs in the marshes of her summer camp...and the secret plan she hatches to help them.

Nina is used to feeling like the odd one out, both at school and in her large family. But while trying to fit in at summer camp, she discovers something even more peculiar: two majestic birds have built a nest in the marsh behind an abandoned infirmary. They appear to be whooping cranes, but that’s impossible—Nina is an amateur bird-watcher, and all her resources tell her that those rare birds haven’t nested in Texas for over a hundred years.

When Nina reports the sighting to wildlife officials, more questions arise. Experts track all the endangered birds, but they can’t identify the female bird that Nina found. Who is she, and where did she come from?

With the help of some fellow campers, Nina sets out to discover who the mystery bird really is. As she gets closer to the truth, will she find a flock of her own?

This instant classic captures the coming-of-age moment of learning to spread your wings in a way you'll never forget.

An Excerpt fromThe Secret Language of Birds

Chapter 1

If not for the bird, I’d have been in the car with my family instead of standing in a gas station parking lot. Not that I’m blaming the bird for what happened. It wasn’t his fault.

I stared down Highway 290, wondering how far my family would drive before noticing they were one kid short of a full minivan.

This wasn’t a regular gas station with a little convenience store and a rack of chips. Nothing that pathetic. Buc-ee’s needs an entire wall just for all their flavors of beef jerky. It’s a huge place with aisle after aisle of snacks, a fudge counter, a café, toys, T-shirts, and even stuff for decorating the house. My mom thought the sequined cattle skulls with flowers in the eye sockets were tacky, but we did have one of the big metal stars on our living room wall. And Buc-ee’s was the only place Mom would stop for a restroom break on a road trip. They’re famous for their restrooms. The Buc-ee’s beaver mascot shows up on billboards along the freeway, announcing things like RISK IT FOR THE BRISKET! and 75 MILES TO BUC-EE’S! YOU CAN HOLD IT! And even if I thought, “No, I absolutely cannot hold it,” I’d have to wait anyway, because we were not stopping anywhere else.

My point is, if you’re going to be abandoned someplace, you could do a lot worse than Buc-ee’s.

We were on our way home to Houston after a long weekend at a lake house in Austin. As soon as we parked at a gas pump, Mom and Dad each grabbed one of the twins, since they were overdue for diaper changes. Chloe and Aiden were almost potty-trained, but that “almost” is important when you’re trying to make it between Buc-ee’s stops.

“You kids stick together,” Mom said to the rest of us--that meant me and my sixteen-year-old sister, Sage, and my brother, Declan, who was fourteen, just a year older than me. Mom handed a credit card to Sage and said, “Go ahead and order the sandwiches. We’ll meet you back here at the car.”

Declan and I got our fountain drinks, pressing our cups under each spout to get a mixture of all the flavors. Sage usually did the same. But this time, she set her cup down and wandered over to the refrigerated cases, where some guys who looked like football players were picking out sports drinks. I followed her while sipping my drink. It tasted pretty good, even though I’d overdone it on the Fanta orange.

“Could you reach a Dr Pepper for me?” Sage asked one of the boys. She pointed to the top shelf.

“Why aren’t you getting your own drink?” I asked.

She glared at me and said, “I just want a can of Dr Pepper, okay?” Her eyes were wide, like she was trying to send me a secret message. “And I need someone to reach it for me.”

“Pretty sure I could reach that.”

She turned back to the guys and said, “My little sister,” while shaking her head. Then she tossed her hair and gave a huge smile to the guy who’d handed her the drink. “Thank you so much,” she said, really cheerful, like he’d given her a winning lottery ticket.

“You’re being weird,” I told her as Declan came up next to me.

Sage laughed, then handed me the credit card. “Here, why don’t y’all go order the sandwiches?”

“Mom said we have to stay together.”

“I’ll catch up to you,” she said. “You can handle this, right? Just order what everyone likes.”

Declan and I found an available touch screen at the café and put in the sandwich orders. BBQ brisket for him, chicken croissant for me, a grilled cheese cut into quarters for Chloe and Aiden to share, pastrami Reuben for Dad, and a turkey club for Mom. I punched in a ham and cheese for Sage, with extra pickles. Sage hated pickles.

“I’m going to look at the snacks,” said Declan.

“Mom and Dad aren’t going to buy you any Beaver Nuggets.”

“Geez, Nina, I’m just going to look. Can you wait for the sandwiches?”


Sage and the football pack had moved on to the jerky wall. She giggled and gave one of them a playful slap to the shoulder. “Perfect,” I mumbled. “Bunch of jerks at the jerky wall.” My face flushed with embarrassment, even though no one could hear me. I was acting like a little kid. Maybe I’d act like Sage when I was older. After another glance in her direction, I shook my head, unable to picture it. Why laugh at something that’s not even funny? Not that I could overhear what the guys were saying, but it probably wasn’t that funny.

After a few minutes, “Order for Nina” came through the overhead speaker. A woman wearing a white apron over her Buc-ee’s T-shirt and khakis was working at the ice cream counter next to the sandwich pickup. Her gray curls were squished beneath a hairnet. While scooping ice cream with one hand, she leaned over and slid the bag of sandwiches closer to me.

“You got it, sweetie?” she said. “That’s a big order.” A plastic name tag on her shirt read WANDA.

“Thanks. I’ve got it.”

Dad came up to the counter then, holding Chloe by the hand. She’d undone her pigtails, as usual, leaving her hair sticking up like a pile of white cotton candy on her head. “There you are,” said Dad. “Where are Declan and Sage?”

I handed him the card and the bag and pointed to Sage. “And Declan’s looking at snacks.”

“Go tell him the Barlow bus is headin’ out.”

On the way to fetch Declan, I noticed a gray-and-white bird looking in through the glass side doors. It was a mockingbird--I recognized it from the Texas state bird coloring pages we’d had in elementary school. They weren’t much fun to color, especially if you’d just opened a brand-new box of crayons.

The mockingbird glanced up at me, hopped a few steps down the sidewalk, then turned back, like it wanted me to follow. Declan was nowhere in sight. I’d make it quick, then come back for him. Outside, the bird looked back again from the edge of the sidewalk. It took off with a sharp cheep-cheep. I followed it to a cedar tree behind the store.

When the bird sang again, it sounded like it was calling my name. Ni-na, Ni-na, Ni-na. See it? See it?

On a lower branch, another mockingbird sat on a nest of twigs. Moss peeked through the twigs and over the sides of the nest. “Yeah, I do see it!” I said. “Do y’all have eggs in there?”

The bird didn’t say anything else, just hopped down and perched behind the nest.

“I’ll take that as a yes.” After looking around to make sure no one saw me talking to a bird, I added, “Thanks for showing me. Nice meeting you.”

Back inside the store, I still saw no sign of Declan. He must’ve gone outside. But out in the parking lot, a different car was parked where our minivan had been. I stepped back inside to make sure this wasn’t the wrong exit. No, there was the fountain drink station. This was the right set of doors.

I jogged around the store, looking up and down the aisles. Maybe my parents had forgotten something for the twins. That had to be it.

No one was shopping in the baby aisle. The minivan wasn’t near any of the exits, or anywhere else in the parking lot. I patted my pockets. Empty. My phone was in the car. After another lap inside the store, I went up to the ice cream counter. Wanda had seemed nice when she gave me the lunch order.

“Back for dessert?” she said. “You didn’t eat all those sandwiches yourself, did you?” She laughed. Not like Sage laughed when she was talking to those boys. Wanda laughed like she meant it.

“I think my family forgot me?” It came out like a question. Even though that had to be what happened, it was too ridiculous to believe.

Wanda looked around, like maybe my family was standing there and I hadn’t noticed them. She set aside her ice cream scoop and said, “You mean like they left you here?”

I nodded. After getting another worker to take her place, Wanda stepped through the little half door next to the ice cream counter and put a hand on my shoulder. “Everything’s going to be just fine,” she said. I looked up and blinked a few times, hoping Wanda didn’t notice I was trying not to cry. She led me to a break room and said, “Wait right here,” then went to find her manager.

Wanda returned after a few minutes. “Your folks called to make sure you were okay,” she said. “They’re headed back. Bet they came to a screeching halt on the highway when they realized you weren’t with them! How about some ice cream? What’s your favorite flavor of Blue Bell?”

“Cookies ’n’ cream is the best.”

Wanda pointed at me and said, “Smart girl. Be right back with a cone.”

Sometimes at home we had cookies ’n’ cream in the freezer, but I could never get to it before Declan tunneled through the carton to dig out the best chunks. The scoop Wanda gave me was full of cookies. She’d brought a cone for herself, too, and sat with me in the break room while we waited for my family.

“Such a big store,” Wanda said. “People start looking around and lose track of time--and each other!” She was probably trying to make me feel better about getting left behind. I hadn’t planned to tell anyone about the mockingbird. Most people would think it was weird. But I felt safe telling Wanda.

“That isn’t how we lost track of each other.” I told her all about the mockingbird--going outside to follow him down the sidewalk and to the tree, where he showed me his nest and sang my name.

Wanda’s eyes widened. “Mockingbirds usually dive-bomb anyone who comes near their nests. They’re territorial.” She leaned in like she was telling me a secret. “But I think animals know who the good people are. That bird trusted you.”

I could’ve stayed there all day, talking to Wanda in the break room. She seemed like the kind of person who’d have a cozy house. A small house, kind of old, but comfortable, maybe with a cat curled up on one end of a plaid fabric couch.

Manager Mavis came in soon, followed by Dad, who looked frantic. He wrapped me in a tight hug and told me he was sorry. So very, very sorry. “How could we have left you?” It didn’t seem like he expected an answer, and I didn’t give one. But I thought, “Yeah, how could you leave me?” They’d driven away, not noticing anything was wrong. Like nothing was missing from the family.

We both thanked Wanda, then walked together to the van.

Turned out it was Chloe who’d noticed I wasn’t with them. Declan told me that the van was ten miles down the road when Chloe said, “Where’s Nina?” At the same time, Mom was passing out the sandwiches and realized she had one extra.

Sage and Declan got in trouble for not staying with me, and Mom and Dad seemed mad at each other.

“I’m sorry,” I said. They were all unwrapping their sandwiches by then. I unwrapped mine, too, even though I wasn’t hungry.

“Ewww, pickles!” said Sage from the seat in front of me.

As we continued down the highway, I looked out the window and said, “A bird sang my name and showed me his nest.” Maybe no one heard me, but that didn’t matter. I said it again, for myself, to remember it was real.

“A bird sang my name.”

Chapter 2

After that day at Buc-ee’s, I listened and looked for birds everywhere. The birding apps I’d added to my phone had pictures of every bird, so I could match them with pictures I took. The best apps recognized birdsong, too. If I turned on the recording as soon as I heard a song, the app showed me who was singing. In the mornings, when birds were busiest, a long list of birds appeared under a sound graph. The apps also had checklists to keep track of sightings. I checked off cardinals, blue jays, house sparrows, and a few others right away, but a couple of weeks had passed since I’d spotted something new. Mom let me order a cheap trail cam to set up in different areas of the yard at night. First thing every morning, I’d check out what images it had captured of birds who woke up before I did. Sage thought the squirrels and raccoons who visited our bird feeders were cute, even though they ate all the food before the birds could get to it.

One Friday after school, I stopped at home just long enough to grab a quick snack before running back out to look for birds. Declan was in the driveway, practicing his basketball shots.

“Hey, Birdbrain,” he said.

“Birds are actually really smart,” I said.

He shook his head and went back to throwing his basketball.

My favorite tree was an old oak a few streets away from home, thick with leaves, perfect to hide in while watching for birds. Its lowest branch, wide as a park bench, practically invited me to hop on. I didn’t pick that tree just because it grew across from my friend’s house. Well, not my friend, really. Iris wouldn’t call us that. But maybe we could be friends, if we had a chance to talk again. We used to go to the same school, but not anymore. That might have been my fault.

From my perch in the tree, I sat still and listened to a birdcall. I liked to guess who was singing before spotting the bird or checking the app. While still listening to the birdsong, I looked for a flicker of movement. This one sounded like a blue jay--an annoyed blue jay. Maybe it wasn’t fair to think that. For all I knew, blue jays sounded like that when they were happy.

Leaves rustled on a tree next to me, even though I didn’t feel any wind. There--a blue jay. I was right.

At the sound of laughter, I turned my attention from the blue jay to a pair of girls walking down the sidewalk. They looked maybe ten or eleven. Their voices carried to the tree, but not enough for me to overhear what they said. I wondered what one girl had said to make the other laugh. Maybe she told a joke. Not the kind that makes fun of someone, but a joke that makes everyone laugh together. Or maybe it wasn’t a joke at all. Just a funny story.

Under the Cover