Longlisted for the 2023 Booker Prize, this poetic and often funny debut — “a motherhood story unlike any other” (Booklist) — a by an author with autism is written from the point of view of an autistic woman as she and her headstrong adolescent daughter are befriended by a glamorous, charismatic couple with dark ulterior motives.

I lived for and loved a bird-heart that summer; I only knew it afterwards.

Sunday Forrester lives with her sixteen-year-old daughter, Dolly, in the house she grew up in. She does things more carefully than most people.

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Longlisted for the 2023 Booker Prize, this poetic and often funny debut — “a motherhood story unlike any other” (Booklist) — a by an author with autism is written from the point of view of an autistic woman as she and her headstrong adolescent daughter are befriended by a glamorous, charismatic couple with dark ulterior motives.

I lived for and loved a bird-heart that summer; I only knew it afterwards.

Sunday Forrester lives with her sixteen-year-old daughter, Dolly, in the house she grew up in. She does things more carefully than most people. On quiet days, she must eat only white foods. Her etiquette handbook guides her through confusing social situations, and to escape, she turns to her treasury of Sicilian folklore. The one thing very much out of her control is clever headstrong Dolly, now on the cusp of leaving home.

Into this carefully ordered world step Vita and Rollo, a couple who move in next door, disarm Sunday with their glamor and charm, and proceed to deliciously break just about every rule in Sunday’s book. Soon they are in and out of each others’ homes, and Sunday feels loved and accepted like never before. But beneath Vita and Rollo’s polish lies something else, something darker. For Sunday has precisely what Vita has always wanted for herself: a daughter of her own.

An astute and poignant psychological portrait of a woman coming to terms with what love means, and why discovering our own unique gifts can save us.

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  • Algonquin Books
  • Paperback
  • December 2023
  • 304 Pages
  • 9781643756615

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About Viktoria Lloyd-Barlow

One of our recommended books is All the Little Bird-Hearts by Viktoria Lloyd-BarlowViktoria Lloyd-Barlow received a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Kent and has extensive personal, professional, and academic experience relating to autism. Like her protagonist, Sunday Forrester, in All the Little Bird-Hearts, Viktoria is autistic. She has presented her doctoral research internationally, most recently speaking at Harvard University on autism and literary narrative. Viktoria lives with her husband and children on the coast of north-east Kent. This is her first novel.

Photo credit: Steven Lloyd-Barlow


“A poetic debut which masterfully intertwines themes of familial love, friendship, class, prejudice and trauma with psychological acuity and wit.” —The Booker Prize Judges 2023

“A novel both delicate and strong, illuminating the disturbing and the extraordinary to be found in the every day. Sunday is a beguiling and beguiled narrator, and her story an examination of the disjunction between humans’ private and public selves. I loved it.” —Maggie O’Farrell, National Book Critics Circle winner and New York Times bestselling author of Hamnet and The Marriage Portrait

“Observations land with the startling yet welcome snap of good standup comedy . . . The result is a tightly focused story, set almost entirely in two neighboring houses on a quiet street, that’s also a gleeful skewering of social codes, a raw portrait of family life and a revealing account of neurodivergence. Sunday may shy away from attention, but Lloyd-Barlow makes her wary, vigilant and poetic voice the star in a mesmerizing debut.” —The Guardian

“Superb. Wonderful. All the Little Bird-Hearts is a beautiful, bittersweet debut . . . Sharply evocative of both motherhood and how British society treats people with disabilities. Throughout the novel, Lloyd-Barlow’s prose sings, and has real acuteness of observation.” —The Telegraph

“[A] tender debut novel.” —Washington Post

“Lloyd-Barlow . . . succeeds in creating a tempest in a very small, provincial teapot . . . Lloyd-Barlow’s narrator is… an effective, thoroughly human character in a thoughtful book.” —Kirkus Review

“Lloyd-Barlow’s portrayal of Sunday’s contentment and confusions makes for a deeply humanizing representation of autism, and her prose is arrestingly sharp. This auspicious debut brims with quiet tragedies and lush emotional landscapes.” —Publishers Weekly

“A motherhood story unlike any other, Lloyd-Barlow’s 2023 Booker Prize–longlisted debut novel is a heartfelt, firsthand account of a neurodivergent mother’s experiences of love, pain, and loss in a world that requires constant translation . . . An engrossing page-turner.” Booklist

Discussion Questions

  1. Sunday’s childhood neighbours had a Larsen trap for capturing and killing birds. A trapped bird would sing on, calling friends to the cage and to their own demise. What do you think it means to have a little bird-heart?
  2. The novel is set in an area of England known and named for its beautiful lakes. What effect does the lake have on Sunday and her family?
  3. Sunday finds comfort and stability in her book on Italy. Why do you think Italian history and folklore function in this way for Sunday?
  4. Does Sunday’s narrative demonstrate benefits to being autistic? How do you think being autistic might also be challenging? Did you read anything about autism in the book which you found surprising or interesting?
  5. The book explores privilege and what that means for those born with and without it. Do you think Vita, Rollo, and the King are purely beneficiaries of genetic, societal, and economic privilege? Do you think their gifts also impair their development in some ways?
  6. What does Sunday’s interaction with the gold-painted street performer mean to you?
  7. Do you think either Sunday or Dolly are any different at the end of the book than they are at the beginning? If so, who or what do you think influenced this change? Do you imagine Sunday’s relationship with Dolly progressing after their meeting in the cafe?
  8. If we returned to visit Sunday a year later, where would she be and what would she be doing?


fire can be mistaken for light

The Lake District

IT WAS ONLY THREE YEARS AGO THAT I SAW VITA FOR THE FIRST time. The day began as my days always did then, greeting a daughter for whom adolescence meant allowing me increasingly smaller glimpses of herself. I woke her before showering and dressing, then, predictably, had to wake her for a second time before going downstairs. I was in a longstanding white-food routine that summer, and my meals typically comprised various breakfasts: toast, cereal or crumpets. On days when food does not have to be dry, scrambled eggs or omelettes can also count as white. I cannot tell if it is a day on which an egg is a white food until I hold one in my hand. It is a small but real joy to me that as an adult I can decide, without explanation, whether eggs qualify as white, and therefore edible, on any given day. Without being told I am making a show of myself. That I am hysterical, attention-seeking and to be ignored until I eat something that is violently coloured.

Occasionally, and only in front of Dolly, I would showily eat something that did not adhere to my assigned list of foods. You can eat normally then; you can do what the rest of us do without a fuss. My mother said this, often. I answered her silently when she was alive and I continue to do so now she is dead: There is a cost, Mother, always a cost to such transgressions, and I am the one who pays. I am the one whose throat and body burn when I politely swallow down food of the wrong colour; it is my arm that itches when a neighbour greets me by lightly placing a hand on my skin. I wear the marks of these encounters, these painful sensory interruptions.

In truth, though, the cost always felt less when it was my daughter for whom I performed. Because she is all that I have loved more than adherence to my routines. I was already afraid, then, of what was between us. I thought of it as a wellfed creature who was expanding rapidly, separating us further from one another everyday. My response to Dolly’s distance had always been to work harder on the illusion of normalcy. Whenever I was able, I concentrated on overriding my natural behaviours in front of her. In a white phase, I daringly added admittedly pale, yet non-white, pieces of food to my meals: chopped and peeled apples pale green grapes, some poached salmon or chicken. During a period when fruit and pink yoghurt were all I found edible, I would make us a plate of cheese and biscuits to share in front of th etelevision, and privately shudder as the dry crumbs spread out like fingers in my throat.

The year before Vita arrived, a cat had taken a liking to our garden. A taut, grey creature that stared fixedly into the distance whenever approached, he was as a little statesman, affronted by contact, but straining to remain polite. Despite this apparent disinterest in our company, he visited us regularly for a time, bringing the small dead bodies of mice and voles. These he placed carefully at our feet, before sitting in apparent reluctance next to us, his body tense and his little face turned away. At first, we tried to pat him, but although he did not move from his chosen position, he visibly shuddered at our touch, and, in his own unhappy way, he taught us to ignore him completely.

When I ate non-white items for my daughter, I held myself as tightly as the cat and, like him, I hoped the sacrifice would be appreciated wordlessly and without fuss. Dolly scrupulously refrained from direct comment on my attempts to challenge my style of specific eating. I chose, as I often did, to read her adolescent disinterest in me as discretion. In return, I resisted describing to her how alarming I found the vibrancy and textures in the broad range of foods that she favoured. I realise now that perhaps this gentleness between us was an imagining of my own; all the non-saying, the unspoken compromises, these felt like love to me. But I have come to see that my daughter does not find comfort in silence, that this is only what I find there. I know now that we are separate and unalike, in this way as in so many others. I should have remembered how quickly she came to hate that cat.

Shortly after I woke Dolly that morning for a second time, the door slammed, informing me that she had left for school and that I was now alone in the house. But voices from upstairs whispered insistently down to me in the hall. Her television had been left on, as it often was, to talk into the empty room like an elderly and confused guest. The set was a recent gift from her father, and the austere black boxiness of it was satisfyingly at odds with the otherwise girlish bedroom. These furnishings were her grandmother’s choice many years ago, and the Laura Ashley frills had not been to Dolly’s own, more sophisticated taste for some time. When she became a teenager, we planned to redecorate her room for her sixteenth birthday, and we had frequently discussed the various paint colours, or wallpapers and the curtains she might then choose. But our plans were made back when 1988 seemed implausibly far into the future, and the idea of my little daughter becoming a young woman was equally illusive. And that summer, when Vita entered our lives, Dolly was already sixteen and our redecorating conversation had been replaced by my silence as she wondered aloud about being off on a gap year or away at university within a couple of years, How often will I actually return here? she would ask.