________________ CM . . . . Volume XVI Number 4. . . .September 25, 2009


Bird Child.

Nan Forler. Illustrated by François Thisdale.
Toronto, ON: Tundra Books, 2009.
32 pp., hardcover, $21.99.
ISBN 978-0-88776-894-1.

Kindergarten-grade 5 / Ages 5-10.

Review by Keith McPherson.

**** /4

Reviewed from f&g’s.


Eliza is a “tiny bird-like girl” whose mother has raised her to ‘fly’ on ‘wings’ of courage and love and to look beyond what is and has been, and to imagine and aspire to “see what can be.” However, Eliza’s aspirations are tested when she witnesses schoolmates tease and taunt a new girl named Lainey because of Lainey’s “feathered and frayed” appearance. Things get much worse when:

In the schoolyard one day, the boy from bus stop number three swaggered over to Lainey. He snatched her red woolen hat and fired it into the wet snow.

The others kicked the snow into icy fountains, smothering her hat beneath a pile of white and cold.

The boy lifted a mitten-load of snow and mushed it into her face, wiping away what was left of the smile she’d had on her first day of school. …

Lainey did not cry and she did not smile. It was as though the others had taken what was inside her and buried it along with her hat. She collapsed into her seat and picked up her pencil. And from that girl came drawings of her sadness that made Eliza feel shame.

internal art     That evening, Eliza’s shame compels her to tell her mother about the bullying incident and the “cold sad pictures” that Lainey drew afterwards. Eliza’s mother listens to Eliza, helps Eliza articulate what makes Lainey special, and then states, “It sounds like Lainey needs someone to help her fly.” With this advice, Eliza decides to help Lainey develop her own ‘wings’ so she, too, can ‘fly’ above what is and imagine what can be. Unfortunately, Lainey’s wings get ‘clipped’ by bullies the first day she attempts to return to school, and Eliza’s wings face their greatest test ever.

     Bird Child is a lyrical, heartfelt and alluring story about bullying. The plot is quick paced and engaging right up until the last page. The storyline presents a realistic account of a school-based bullying as seen through the eyes of an elementary-aged girl. The central theme is ‘the courage it takes bystanders to act against those who bully.’

     One of the many strengths of Bird Child is that the author and illustration, Forler and Thisdale, provide us with a protagonist, Eliza, who is very realistic and someone to whom we come to relate and care about. A great deal of this ‘reality’ is conveyed through Thisdale’s use of digitally and artistically enhanced photographs that plainly reflect Eliza’s facial expressions and body gestures, and which, in turn, help us to identify with her emotions and the relationships she develops with other characters. Additionally, Forler’s use of highly evocative similes and thickly descriptive language helps the reader step into the story, re/imagine and weave their own experiences into the story, and become personally engaged with Eliza’s struggles and triumphs.

     However, it is when Eliza fails to stop Lainey’s bullies that we truly view and experience Eliza’s fallibilities. Because of our affinity with Eliza, it is as if we are standing in Eliza’s boots and feeling her confusion and shock when the bullies strike, and, as Forler writes, “Eliza said nothing. She stood like a statue with her boots sinking deeper and deeper into the snow, her voice dry as a mouthful of wool, and watched it happen.” And when Eliza turns and runs away from Lainey’s “cold wet face” and goes back into the school, many of us can hear the door slam behind us as well.

     According to Entenman, Murens & Hendricks (2005), bullying literature that encourages elementary students to see themselves and their communities mirrored in a story’s characters and settings has the unique power “for engaging students in dialogue that either ends the bullying or gives victims and bystanders the knowledge and confidence to face it” (p. 361). They also argue that through vicarious experiences with bullying literature,

Students troubled by bullies are more likely to seek out the teacher’s help,…absorb a language for dealing with bullying and begin to develop a schema for addressing bullying behaviour, [and]…will be more likely to recognize their teacher as sensitive and supportive. (p. 362).

     Bird Child provides the very vicarious bullying experiences about which Entenman, Murens & Hendricks speak and provides young Canadians with enough detail and pathos to establish the momentum for some very stimulating and thoughtful discussions and explorations into the issues and the dynamics associated with bullying.

     Bird Child also presents teachers and parents with numerous opportunities to explore practical steps that children can take to address bullying. For example, in a recent review of Tara White’s I Like Who I Am (a story about the bullying of a blue-eyed blond-haired Mohawk girl (McPherson, 2008)), I noted that teachers and parents could use characters’ clearly visible facial and body gestures to help young students identifying and begin reconciling the strong and sometimes confusing feelings associated with bullying. As mentioned earlier, Thisdale does an excellent job of detailing gestures in Bird Child, especially on the close-ups of Lainey’s face as it changes from joy at attending school, to shock at being bullied, and utter disappointment at her seemingly hopeless situation.

     Furthermore, and as was the case for the protagonist in I Like Who I Am, Eliza learns that when bullying occurs, it is important to seek out help from an adult she can trust. In both stories, elders are portrayed as supportive, loving, wise, and key people who help the child take a stand against bullies. Like Bird Child and I Like who I Am, literature that contains this “get-adult-help” message supports one the key tenets in most school and home anti-bullying programs (Canadian Safe School Network, 2009; Public Safety Canada, 2009).

     Examples of story plot in Bird Child that parents and teacher can use to explore concrete steps that children can take to stop bullying are:

1 standing up for oneself (Lainey does not, and the bullying escalates)

2 speaking out against bullying (Eliza does and with surprising results),

3 comforting the person who was hurt (Eliza comforts Lainey, which produces another set of surprising results),

4 helping a child who is bullied by being a friend (the last page in this picture book eloquently visualizes a possible consequence of this type of action),

5 understanding that the situation is not hopeless and something can be done to stop the bullying (the message central to this book and Eliza’s actions), and

6 remembering that, if you walk away and get help, you are part of the solution. If you stay and watch, you are part of the problem. (Eliza finds this out when she does nothing to stop Lainey’s bullies).

     One reservation I had with Bird Child is that I feared that some children might have difficulty relating to Eliza’s (and later Lainey’s) ability to ‘fly’ above the world and “see herself, dancing and twirling in the feathery, white clouds.” As an adult, I reconciled Eliza’s and Lainey’s ‘flying’ as an effective metaphorical expression of happiness, hope, caring and courage. However, I was afraid elementary children may not make this abstract association, and, consequently, lose their tenuous hold on the story’s ‘believability.’

     I decided to test my fear. I read Bird Child to a grade one class in Vancouver, BC, and asked the children to comment on Eliza’s ability to fly. Several children indicated that they had ‘flown’ in their own dreams; others wished they could fly; and one child explained that there were days when she felt so good that she felt like she was “floating just like Eliza.” Obviously, Forler and Thisdale have struck a chord in these children’s imaginations that enhances their belief in, and enjoyment of, the story. I chalked up my reservation to my own adult in/sensibilities.

     François Thisdale’s illustrations are feast of pure visual delight and complement Forler’s text with amazing sensitivity. Drawing upon almost twenty years of illustrative experience, Thisdale uses a combination of richly textured traditional drawing and painting techniques interwoven with digital imagery in an art form similar to that displayed in his previous elementary picture books such as Celine, Paysage Pour un Enfant and In the Days of Sand and Stars. In Bird Child, he uses this same unique but distinct art technique to create wintry images so sumptuous and visually evocative that you can hear the snow squeak-crunching under your boots, smell and see wafts of wood-burning-stove smoke rising straight up off the page, and feel the ice-cold winter air pour off the book’s pages and into your lap like chilled air falling from an ice box.

     The predominance in Bird Child is for a palette of cool green-blue colors framed with misty black borders. This approach gives the book a soft, graceful, dreamy-wintry feeling that furthers the surreal element of Eliza’s magical imagination and her ability to “fly through dreams and love.” A close look at the images upon successive readings reveals many hidden visual messages.

     Teachers can use Bird Child with older children to investigate how color and scale can be used to focus the reader’s attention on specific areas and people on the page. Similarly, children can be encouraged to search for and discuss visual methods that Thisdale uses to express feelings, such as the splatters of red ‘anger’ coming out of Lainey’s home’s door/mouth, and the white ‘tears’ falling from one of its window ledges/eyes.

     Bird Child is an outstanding book that captures the courage it takes to prevent bullying. It would be a noteworthy addition to any elementary children’s literature collection and a significant resource for any anti-bullying program. Bird Child stirs the soul, is a joy to experience, and presents a bold hopeful ray of light to children experiencing bullying.

Highly Recommended.

Keith McPherson has been a primary and elementary teacher and teacher-librarian in BC since 1984 and is currently the coordinator of the Language and Literacy Education Research Centre at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, BC.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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