Book Review: The Dead Bird

You may know author Margaret Wise Brown from her over-hyped children’s book Goodnight Moon or her under-appreciated story Big Red Barn.

Somewhere in the middle she wrote The Dead Bird.

The cover of the book The Dead Bird. The cover illustration depicts a boy and girl visiting a woodland grave with flowers. The headstone is a rock with words written on it: Here Lies a Bird.

It is a simple, straight-forward tale of death intended for ages 4 to 8. I’ll wager its simplicity works for children as young as two.

On the first page a bird is shown lying in a field below a blue sky. Turning the page, the story begins: "The bird was dead when the children found it."

And so the story progresses, showing you illustrations first and then explanatory text when you turn the page. Too often with regular books, Mom or Dad may flip the page immediately after finishing reading the words. This book’s format forces you to fully contemplate the pictures, and then do the same with the words because they are separated.

The plot continues as four kids examine the dead bird, noticing its cold body beginning to grow stiff. They are sad, but glad they found the bird because they will have the chance to hold a funeral and bury it. The kids carry the bird into nearby woods, dig a hole, wrap the bird in leaves, bury it and top the grave with flowers. Then they sing a song to the bird.

The story ends with: "And every day, until they forgot, they went and sang to their little dead bird and put fresh flowers on his grave." The last picture shows the kids playing in a field next to the woods and the grave is still visible.

This story strikes me as a powerful way to convey concepts of permanence (the bird is here, and now it’s not) and special traditions associated with death. Part of its power is that no one religious viewpoint is introduced. We can all agree on the bare facts surrounding the death of a living thing, and a parent is then free to add to that as he or she deems fit.

Perspective

Death is an open subject in our home. My wife’s mother is dead and as soon as our daughter became aware of grandmas and grandpas, she asked — at age 2 — where her other grandmother was. So we told her in the most basic of terms, and later explained about one of my brothers who is also gone.

Some months later she asked why doctors couldn’t save Grandma. Well, you know how Papa can’t always fix your broken toys? Sometimes people can’t be fixed.

Having the death issue out in the open leaves us freer to talk about our deceased relatives in our spouse-to-spouse conversations and is an opportunity to share with our daughter stories about the relatives she’ll never meet except through photos.

That leads me to a recent story recounted by my wife while she strolled with two moms on a pedestrian-bike trail. Four kids were present — our newborn boy, our 3-year-old daughter, a 4-year-old girl and an 18-month-old girl.

The group came upon a dragonfly on the trail lying on its back with its legs kicking.

18-month-old: "Ohhhh, what happened to it?"

4-year-old: "Well, it must be dying."

My wife: "By the time we come back down the trail, it will probably be dead. Let’s go now."

When the group returned, the dragonfly was still twitching. This time the moms and girls crouched down to inspect the dragonfly and realized the twitching was caused by ants tugging and feasting on its body.

18-month-old: "Ewwwwww!"

4-year-old: "Why are they eating it?"

My daughter: "I didn’t know ants ate other bugs."

My wife: "Girls, when you die, something eats you."

The kids looked at each other.

4-year-old: "Will ants eat us?"

My wife: "Not necessarily, but something will."

Sorry if that’s not a funny or insightful slice of life, but it’s real… matter of fact. You die, something will eat you, and you will fertilize the ground. I wouldn’t normally think about touching upon body decomposition with a toddler, but there you go, a dead dragonfly. Real life.

And so too, Margaret Wise Brown’s The Dead Bird captured what (slightly older) kids would do and how they would concretely think when encountering a dead animal.

And if you want to discuss souls separating from bodies, you’re free. I’m not sure all religious traditions view birds and insects as having souls, so again, that’s what makes The Dead Bird story accessible to everyone, adaptable to your beliefs.

I don’t have a good segue for this, but while we’re talking about death, I have a gem to share. Last month our daughter spontaneously told us that if she were to die, we could have another baby to replace her, but it has to be a girl.

What do you say to that? I think I said, "Oh. … Thank you."

The Dead Bird is out-of-print (I bought my copy at a library book sale), but you may find copies via AbeBooks.com, a vast database of buy-them-online books available from 13,500 independent book stores in America (international users, look for country links at the bottom of the AbeBooks front page.)

Another book about death is Goodbye to Kitty by Cheeseburger Brown. You can review the entire book online prior to purchase.

How have you handled talking about death with your child(ren)?

Comments

4 Responses to “Book Review: The Dead Bird”

  1. thordora says:

    Much like your wife it sounds. I lost my mother young, and it colors my perspective. When my older daughter mentions death, I remind her birth and death are a continuum-can’t have one without the other, and that death is a normal part of life. She gets some of it-not sure if she understands the permanence issue as of yet though…

    May 14th, 2008 at 5:17 am

  2. Jonathan says:

    It is a good book. Being an atheistic Jew I appreciate that it lets the parent decide if they will put any religious context to death.

    FYI – the book is being re-published and is due out on May 30th according to Amazon.com

    May 14th, 2008 at 6:13 am

  3. Cindi says:

    I agree with you view about this book! I am going to attempt to get a copy of it. Thanks for the reference and your take on it. Cindi

    May 14th, 2008 at 12:28 pm

  4. Jennifer says:

    As a mama of 4, even as one who doesn’t love The Big Red Barn – yes, we have it, but that doesn’t mean we have to read it! – I agree that this book is an entirely wholesome, child’s eye view. I have always loved the separation of words from pictures – thanks for pointing this out.

    For Jewish readers (religious or not) interested in continuing the conversation into other deeper issues, I also recomment David Wolpe’s “Teaching Your Children About God.”

    September 10th, 2008 at 1:02 pm

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