Reviews /

The Circles In The Sky

Authored by Karl James Mountford
Illustrated by Karl James Mountford
Published by Walker Books

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A peculiar and sensitive fox is disturbed in his den by the melancholy cawing of birds above ground. He races through the felled trees and uninhabited cabins of the forest. He finds ‘something small, something still…perhaps forgotten?’ A bird has died.

This beautiful little fable shows Fox trying to come to terms with the death of this bird he had never encountered, and the unexpected ways that it affects him. He tries to scare it, to frighten it, to sing to it, but all to no avail. The arrival of a wise moth signals the start of Fox’s understanding. Moth gently guides Fox towards the realisation that something has been lost. It is gone.

Moth’s attempts to cushion the blow confuse Fox. Moth explains that ‘sometimes there can be a different kind of here’  – this phrase, above all others in the poignant text, really caught me in the feelings. The titular ‘circles in the sky’ are the sun and moon. Moth tries to explain that birth and death are like the appearance and disappearance of the sun and moon. In the end, Moth has to use the bluntest and most clear of words. Bird is dead.

There is a very affecting ‘childness’ to Fox and his questions, and the tenderness of Moth’s interactions with him is what stands out most. I was once in the position of having to take the role of Moth with a student, sharing the worst of news with them and talking through their immediate responses. There is a pureness and a rawness of heart in this that has a real ring of truth. Detours into metaphor to protect somebody’s feelings can be frustrating when all people want is to know what’s going on.

Young readers are not left distraught, but nor are they coddled with false hopes. Bird died, and Bird is dead, but just like the felled trees leave space for new growth, the ebb and flow of life continues, and is bigger than each of us. The cabins uninhabited cabins still contain the memories of those who lives within in, even if they are empty now.

Mountford’s mastery of colour is on fine display. The softness and gentleness of the language and interaction is mirrored in the utterly absorbing illustration. His deft use of the palette builds the whole landscape in greens, browns and reds, whilst our characters sit atop it in black. One spread was especially striking to me, in which Fox is leaping beside the bird, whilst deep below the ground we see the skeletons of creatures long-since-passed, mingling with the deep roots of the trees. So much conversation could be nurtured with a child around these pages alone.

A beautiful book on coming to terms with loss, and the circularity of things. It respects the dignity of children’s own responses to what is, for many of them, their greatest fear.