Monday, July 25, 2011
Written by Zetta Elliott
Illustrated by Shadra Strickland
(Lee & Low Books, 2008)
There are goofy picture books about green eggs and curious monkeys. Splendid reads. But what amazes me about the genre is the variety and how much depth can arise in so few pages. Bird is a book that has both inspired and haunted me. It examines drug addiction through the eyes of a child, humanizing it with both anger and compassion.
The title refers to the main character, an African-American boy, nicknamed by his deceased grandfather who likened him to a chirping bird demanding to be fed as a baby. The title refers to much more: the boy's fascination with drawing birds, Charlie Parker (also nicknamed Bird), the planes his grandfather flew during war, the rooftop escape from street life and ultimately heaven.
With brother Marcus and his grandfather gone, the grandfather's best friend Sonny (Uncle Son) who mentors the boy. It is a relationship of mutual respect, with the boy keeping Uncle Son on his toes and the elder offering wisdom such as, "You just remember, everybody got their somethin'. And that includes you."
The boy's "somethin'" is his growing talent sketching. In art, he says, "you can fix stuff that's messed up just by using your imagination or rubbing your eraser over the page."
In life, however, it's not so easy.
As the boy recalls his brother, an artist who expressed himself through graffiti, he recognizes the encouragement and advice Marcus gave for the boy's own budding drawing talent. Initially, the boy does not realize Marcus' change is from drugs:
He never let me go up on the roof with him. But sometimes afterward, he'd take me to the store and buy a big bag of chips and two bottles of soda. Then we'd go to the park and hang out. I never asked him why his eyes were so red. I just listened to my big brother talk about the sky.
Things worsen. In time, the boy is not permitted to let Marcus in the family apartment. Marcus still manages to tell his younger sibling, "It's not too late for you."
The story is heartbreaking, yet hopeful. Uncle Son tells the boy about a time when slaves learned to fly, soaring in the skies after dying in chains. The boy asks, "Is Marcus in heaven or in Africa?" The elder tells the boy Marcus is at peace.
Strickland's illustrations, softly realized in watercolor, gouache, charcoal and pen, are magnificent. She limits her palette to blues, brown, black and cream, giving an airy feel. Elliott's words dazzle from the outset as the boy glimpses a bird outside, "perched on the rusty rail of the fire escape shivering in the winter wind." Her text is a perfect example of the beauty coming from a wordier picture book, one that bucks the trend of adhering to absurdly low word limits. But then, Elliott's book is exceptional in its target audience as well. Yes, younger children can learn about the dangers of drug usage, but this book may resonate more with tweens, teens and adults.
It's a book that lingers. Bird is a treasure.