The Dead Bird

Book review by
Jan Carr, Common Sense Media
The Dead Bird Book Poster Image
Classic about kids burying bird gets vibrant new art.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Frank information about death, such as that bodies grow cold and stiff. Information about burial rituals: digging graves, planting flowers, singing songs to memorialize, printing gravestones, visiting a grave site.

Positive Messages

When someone dies, it's comforting and meaningful to hold rituals to memorialize him or her. Even though we're sad about death, there are happy things that bring us cheer and tether us to life.

Positive Role Models & Representations

The kids observe the realities of death and take it upon themselves to memorialize the bird. They dig a grave, plant flowers, compose a song, and make a gravestone.

Violence & Scariness

No violence per se, but the book deals frankly with death. Though the bird is still warm, its heart stops beating. Its body grows cold and stiff. The children realize the bird will never fly again.

Language

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Dead Bird, by Margaret Wise Brown (Goodnight, Moon and The Runaway Bunny), is a quiet meditation on death and the healing power of ritual. It's a reissue of a text originally published in 1938, given fresh life with beautiful new illustrations by 2016 Caldecott Honoree Christian Robinson (Last Stop on Market Street). Four kids find a dead bird, and the text throughout is as straightforward and unflinching as the first line: "The bird was dead when the children found it." The frank specificity about death can spark family discussion: "And even as they held it, it began to get cold, and the limp bird body grew stiff, so they couldn't bend its legs and the head didn't flop when they moved it." In this new edition, the text is balanced by life-affirming, even joyful art. Two of the kids wear fanciful costumes -- butterfly wings and a fox mask and tail -- and all are smiling as they sing and pick flowers to decorate the grave. The art is bright and cheerfully colored, and the kids are updated, too, given a new racial balance.

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What's the story?

In THE DEAD BIRD, four kids come upon a dead bird. They hold it as the body turns cold and stiff, then decide to bury it in the woods "the way grown-up people did when someone died." They dig a hole, put "sweet-ferns in the bottom of the grave," top it with flowers, sing an impromptu song, and set a stone on top. "And every day, until they forgot, they went and sang to their little dead bird, and put fresh flowers on his grave."

Is it any good?

A lovely reissue of Margaret Wise Brown's classic book about kids finding and burying a dead bird is given new life with bright, updated illustrations by award-winning artist Christian Robinson. Brown made her reputation writing stories that appeal to children, and her books are still wildly popular. The subject is sensitive, and the text is forthright, not touchy-feely -- the reader experiences the confusion of death from the kids' point of view and from their actions, burying the bird "the way grown-up people did when someone died." When the bird's body goes cold, the plain-dealing text says, "That was the way animals got when they had been dead for some time -- cold dead and stone still, with no heart beating."

The sadness of death is counteracted by the colorful, life-affirming art that lends the book a welcome cheer. The kids smile as they go about the business of memorializing the bird and form a happy, connected ring to sing the song they make up. They're also accompanied by a dog who's very much alive -- he licks the kids' faces when they cry -- and the group itself is happily racially diverse.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about death. Do you have any experience of it? What happened? How did you feel?

  • Families also can talk about rituals surrounding death. Why did the kids bury the bird, put a stone on top, sing a song, and plant flowers? Why did they keep visiting the grave?

  • There are sad things in this book, but sometimes the kids look happy. Why? Look at the pictures. What in them makes you feel happy?

Book details

Themes & Topics

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