Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Bird Child

Written by Nan Forler, illustrated by Francois Thisdale

Tundra Books, 2009

$19.95, ages 4-8, 32 pages

A skinny girl with wobbly legs finds the courage to stand up for a classmate who is being picked on in this poetic story about believing in what can be.

Eliza is as frail looking as a newly hatched bird, but is told by her mother that she can do anything she puts her mind to. Ever since she was a baby, her mother has told Eliza she can fly.

"Look down and see what is," her mother says. "Now, look up and see what can be."

Then one day Lainey, a new girl with a big smile bounds up the steps of the school bus, and Eliza must dig deep inside herself to learn what those words really mean.

Lainey has a friendly face, but looks different from the other kids. Her yellow hair sticks out like straw. Her coat is frayed and torn. The buttons on her coat are mismatched. And soon the kids are taunting her and making her feel unwelcome.

At school, Eliza sits next to Lainey without saying a word. She peers over Lainey's shoulder to watch her paint pictures of a beautiful castle in the sky. But as the teasing picks up, the sunlight and birds begin to fade from Lainey's artwork.

On the schoolyard, a boy tosses Lainey's hat into the snow and other kids join in, kicking it deeper into the snow. Then the boy squishes snow into Lainey's face and wipes away what was left of the smile she had on the first day of school.

Eliza stands in the back of the group, with her chin tucked in her collar, and does nothing to help. She feels like a statue in the snow, her mouth is as dry as wool. She knows she should say something, but she can't get herself to speak up.

It is deep into winter and the suffering both girls feel is made more acute by the cold outside: the sting of loneliness that Lainey feels and the chill that is going through Eliza when she watches the bullying without coming to Lainey's defense.

When Lainey walks with her head down back to class and draws sad pictures that afternoon, Eliza feels shame and it shows in her face; without moving her head, she steals a glance at Lainey, as if pretending she's not looking.

The next day, Lainey doesn't show up for school and Eliza can no longer bear the guilt inside her.

Eliza goes to her mother and tells her about Lainey's sad drawings and the silence that occurred when no one stood up for her. Instead of admonishing Eliza for not coming forward, her mother helps Eliza realize what she should do: reach out and show Lainey how to fly.

Forler's lyrical words capture so well the trepidation a child feels standing up to bullies, as well as the guilt that comes with doing nothing to help, then offers an inspiring example of a child doing what is right and feeling uplifted by it.

Thisdale uses photographs of real faces enhanced by paint to convey emotions, at times so honestly they're painful to see, as when Lainey scrunches her eyes shut after being hit in the face with snow. Other times expressions are exhilarating, as when Lainey looks with a faraway smile at her painting of a castle.

Any child who's ever found themselves at a crossroads, deciding between standing up for what is right or looking the other way, will find the courage to fly after reading this lovely book.

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