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Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Dead Bird, wirtten by Margaret Wise Brown, with pictures by Christian Robinson. Harper, 2016. $21.99 ages 4 and up

"But it had not been dead for long
- it was still warm and its eyes were closed.

The children felt with their fingers
for the quick beat of the bird's heart in its breast.

But there was no heart beating.
That was how they knew it was dead."

Sadly, I had to pick my first dead robin of the spring off my patio this week. They fly into the sunny windows in the east too often, generally stunning themselves for a few minutes. This one hit too hard, I guess. It makes me sad.

It also led me to reread this newly illustrated edition of an old favorite Margaret Wise Brown book that I shared with my children and my kindergartners a long time ago. That edition was published in 1958 (though Ms. Brown had written it 20 years earlier) and was illustrated by Remy Charlip.

This thoughtful revisit is illustrated by the gifted and talented Christian Robinson. Oh, how I love his work! He places four characters in an urban setting - a green and lovely park. Together with their canine pal, and out to enjoy a warm and sunny day, they come upon the dead bird. One little girl bends to touch it, sharing the news that it has not been dead long ... but, it is dead. There is no heartbeat.

They know exactly what to do:

"The children were very sorry the bird was dead
and could never fly again. But they were glad
they had found it, because now they could dig
a grave in the woods and bury it."

They do what they have seen their elders do, even singing a song of remembrance to it. They cry for the loss, and then go off to play together as had been their plan before finding the bird. Each time they visit the park, they also take time to sing again and place flowers - 'until they forgot'.

The setting created 'in traditional media and Photoshop' is quietly emotional, matching the tone of this honest story about death. His characters are so real that we feel we are sharing the emotions they feel, and the respect they have for the dead bird. Done in full color, he allows a close look at their expressive faces while also showing the beauty of the parkland. He constantly varies our perspective on the action, from quiet and sombre to light and playful.  He is in tune with children at their best.

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