Margaret Wise Brown, The Dead Bird. Pictures by Christian Robinson
Published 2016 by Harper, 32p
Written in 1938, first published in 1958 after Margaret Wise Brown’s death, reissued in 2016 this picture book is a classic. Some might consider the story inappropriate for children as it deals with death and we want the little ones to feel secure and joyful, don’t we?
But how can children grow up and turn into confident and honest individuals if not by being told the truth? Telling the truth doesn’t have to be a Herculean task, an upsetting moment but a comforting and encouraging dialogue. And emphatic stories always help.
As I have just said, the story was written almost eighty years ago but Christian Robinson’s beautiful illustrations bring the set up in contemporary urban landscapes, facilitating verisimilitude.
One day a group of children playing outside find a dead bird. Kneeling near the inert little creature they check its heart and conclude there is no beating. Affected by the event they will copy the burial ceremony the grown-up people organize for their deceased. The children take the bird in the woods and prepare for the funeral which is conferred a symbolic significance.
Digging a hole in the ground, bringing flowers and singing a hymn, the children follow a social ritual; they create a connection with the little bird and also between themselves, reminding us about the importance of family when coping with loss and grieving. I think we can all recall the moment of our childhood when we used to bury things, establishing a bonding with them, even for short periods of time. Their crying is not only for the bird which they didn’t know when alive but also because of the solemn and intense funerary practice.
The children will bring fresh flowers to the grave until they forget and joyfully return to their games.
It’s like the death of a pet which being part of the family is mourned and missed. Cremating or burying it we offer our final gesture of affection and present children a behavior to follow (I refuse to analyze the repercussions of ignoring or throwing away a dead animal might have on the formation of children).