by Sam Juliano
And we buried you/In the ground/With ferns and flowers
Some of the most beloved and acclaimed works of children’s literature have handled the theme of death with grace and dignity. John Gunther’s Death Be Not Proud, Katherine Patterson’s Bridge to Terabithia, Wilson Rawl’s Where the Red Fern Grows and Pearl S. Buck’s The Big Wave have examined this most delicate of subjects from both an intimate and universal vantage point. Though none other than what may well be the most venerated of all books written for the younger set, Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White subtly weaves in the poignant understanding of death as a part of life and continuity, most American picture books have opted to steer clear, knowing well that some young readers would not be able to approach the subject with any semblance of maturity, some others still would be disturbed. Contemporary picture books featuring the theme are rarer still, and in some instances like City Dog, Country Frog (2010) by Mo Williams and Jon. J. Muth, it is partially obscured by the concurrent cycle of life motif. The resurrection theme is examined in Bob Staake’s Bluebird, to exhilarating resonance. European picture books have generally been more audacious in exploring the subject, with achingly beautiful works like the Norwegian My Father’s Arms are a Boat by Stein Erik Lunde and Oyvind Torseter and the Danish Cry, Heart, But Never Break by Glenn Ringtved and Charlotte Pardi dealing with death candidly and with keen psychological insight.
In 1938 one of most beloved writers in the history of children lit -Margaret Wise Brown- wrote The Dead Bird, a spare situational story about four children who find a lifeless bird and proceed to send it off with a ceremony, a song and a burial and grave marker. The story’s re-release in 1958 featured new illustrations by the renowned Remy Charlip, who consigned this somber narrative a mournful tone throughout, via exceedingly dark hues in a restrictive three color scheme. Charlip’s interpretation was one of austerity and reverence for the dead. This past year, the extraordinarily gifted Christian Robinson, an avowed fan of Brown’s work re-imagined this seminal work more in the vein of a celebration of life. His palette is brighter, his scheme more colorful, his space far less claustrophobic. His characters are no less saddened than Charlip’s but they are shown as more upbeat. Charlip’s interpretation was largely a spiritual one, Robinson’s more ritualistic. While there can be no question that the earlier version possessed a sedate beauty, an earthiness and ethereal quality, Robinson has opened up the pictorial possibilities of this melancholic tale, employing his acrylic paint, mixed media and photoshop techniques to create art that is breathtakingly beautiful in design, richness of the chalky pastel colors and striking contrast. Like a veteran filmmaker working to maintain shot virtuosity, he moved from mid-range panels to close-ups, fusing the capabilities of the form with a harrowing realistic tone.
The dust jacket cover, replicated on the hard inside canvas displays the somber mise en scene, showing the dead bird in a field of flowers. We only see the legs of the children, so as not to violate the responses that serve as an emotional anchor to a single episode story. The funeral bunting is displayed in the bold finality of the title letters, with black emphasizing the key word. The end papers, with their ordered line up of tree tops and the background of buildings denote a city park. A wide stream and a bridge are included in this funereal canvas noted for its emptiness. The copyright and title pages work in unison to introduce the five characters who will be serving as pallbearers, professional mourners and gravediggers in this life’s lesson of understanding that death is a part of life. One of the two boys is dressed as a fox, the other carries a blue kite, while one of the girls wears blue wings. A dog completes this fun-seeking quintet. The bird’s discovery is shown in a remarkable milling shot, with seemingly perfect splashes of colors in the clothes, costumes and objects. A stunning sense of urgency manifests itself in the shocked expressions, and slow realization this bird will never fly again. Robinson does wonders in this spread, dominated as it is by positioning, hollow eyes and speechlessness. The minimalist procession proceeds over the bridge and into the forest. At the burial spot they dig a hole, line the bottom of the shallow pit with sweet ferns, and wrap the bird up in grapevine leaves. Flowers are placed on top before the dirt covering.
Unlike Charlip, whose illustrative response to the book’s powerfully moving song elegy at the burial site is a spacious metaphysical canvas, Robinson stresses the communal aspect of this saddest of events, by having the four children hold hands in a circle, with the dog in proper negotiating position. The serene moment is captured in the book’s most grief-stricken canvas, one replayed in graveyard services dating back to the beginnings of humanity. Robinson’s stark images show bare mournful expressions, before the close in capture of the covering stone that reads: Here Lies a bird that is dead. The next double page spread is arguably the book’s most spectacularly exquisite. It is a close-up of the flowers, wild violet plants and geraniums, white and yellow with smaller pink pedals, a real tour de force of pastoral sublimity.
Brown of course well understood that for children this seeming epiphany was nothing more than a brief diversion in their impressionable young lives, and she rightly suggests they will eventually forget. But until that time they visit the grave, sing and put fresh flowers in and around the stone. The boy with the kite finally is able to hone his craft, as the girl with the wing glides across the grass, the one with the fox costume performs in front of the dog while the other girl frolics. The back end papers maintain the serenity of the opening with the repeat art, strengthening the perception of this work as a chamber piece.
Few books of this or any year for that matter are as affecting and as lovely as The Dead Bird. One of the country’s finest children’s book illustrators has crafted a unique interpretation, one that honors the dead, but celebrates the living. Somehow Robinson’s world view matches his magisterial tapestries. The Dead Bird is a masterpiece that should be gaining the undivided attention of the committee.
Note: This is the twenty-seventh entry in the ongoing 2016 Caldecott Medal Contender series. The series does not purport to predict what the committee will choose, rather it attempts to gauge what the writer feels should be in the running. In most instances the books that are featured in the series have been touted as contenders in various online round-ups, but for the ones that are not, the inclusions are a humble plea to the committee for consideration. It is anticipated the series will include at least 30 titles; the order which they are being presented in is arbitrary, as every book in this series is a contender. Some of my top favorites of the lot will be done near the end. The awards will be announced on January 22nd, hence the reviews will continue till two days before that date.