Reviews /

Bird Is Dead

Authored by Tiny Fisscher
Illustrated by Herma Starreveld
Published by Greystone Books,Canada

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What do you say when a young child asks you about death? The death of a pet. Or creature at the side of the road. Or a relative. Do you say, ‘It’s like they’re asleep.’ ‘They’re waiting in heaven.’ ‘He passed away.’ It’s difficult for us adults because we are so programmed to use euphemisms and circumlocutions. We are used to looking out for people’s feelings and trying not to say things which will upset them. Young children aren’t thinking about any of that. They’re curious about death.

This new book would be just the thing to have to hand to help navigate a conversation around death. Bird is dead, and the other birds gather around. Being birds, not people, they are pretty direct about it. Lying on your back with your feet up and your eyes closed is a pretty sure sign of death. Is death for a long time? Yes, it’s forever. You might feel sad, you might want a cry – that’s ok, you can have a bit of a cry. One of the birds didn’t really get on very well with the deceased member of the flock – that’s ok, we don’t get on with everyone and we don’t need to pretend we were friends or that the dead person (or bird) was a saint just because they’ve died. You have to do something about the dead person, bury them perhaps. And it makes sense to have some sort of ceremony to mark the fact that their life is over but after that you have to get on with your life. Have some worms, or, if you don’t much like worms, some cake would be good.

There is no suggestion that bird lives on in any sense, there is no afterlife except in the limited sense that we remember bird – even after they’ve died. If children come from a faith background, they may have thoughts about heaven or an equivalent. With this book having a bird as protagonist I think these conversations can be had in a very safe way – a child with a very strong belief in human salvation can have a less loaded conversation with a dead bird as a subject.

The story is told through pictures and through what the birds say to each other – you might be reminded of Du Iz Tak by Carson Ellis, a picturebook where insects talk their own mysterious language. Children will have lots to think about and lots to say about how the birds are feeling about each other and about their dead companion. A sensitive co-reader, might learn quite a lot from that about how the child is feeling and thinking about death. Sometimes that’s useful, it’s nearly always interesting.

This picturebook is written by Tiny Fisscher and illustrated in a charming, patchwork style by Herma Starreveld. It is translated from the original Dutch with remarkable terse efficiency by Laura Watkinson. The book is I think slightly unusual in that the author saw the illustrator’s work on social media, fell in love with it and approached them to collaborate without any preconception of story or topic. One can see why the artwork would have caught Fisscher’s eye, the birds are oddly grotesque and oddly expressive. You won’t mistake them for any common species of garden bird with their crumpled paper, paint and newsprint textures. Children might enjoy emulating the style and, while their hands are busy with that, an adult might find an opportunity to work alongside and extend a conversation.

I liked noticing how the illustrator reuses elements of illustrations – this could sometimes feel lazy but here felt full of artifice. I noticed a page that exactly repeats an illustration of two birds talking in order to extend their dialogue. Neither has moved as they are still just standing there talking. Bird hasn’t moved either – but then, Bird is dead.

This book follows in a line of books which find ways to approach death in a way that is direct and honest about the complex and conflicting emotions that we feel when someone dies. Readers may think of Badger’s Parting Gifts, The Hare Shaped Hole and Grandpa’s Island. These books share with Bird Is Dead a clarity and a lack of sentimentality which make them ideal stages to explore our own thinking or that of a child.

Books are not medicine and this is not a story to spring on a child whose beloved pet or relative has just passed away. It is however an excellent book to have on hand for when the topic of death comes up or in the corner for the child who needs it to find and puzzle over. I would happily explore this book from ages four to seven. It might be one to read, leave, and come back to another time. Although the birds themselves are not polite, they are gentle, and this book should enable some gentle conversations on an important topic.