with Quiet resilience.


30 days of pbDay Seven:  Bird         

By Zetta Elliott , Illus. Shadra Strickland   

Lee & Low Books, 2008. Hardcover.


bird-coverYoung Mekhai, better known as Bird, loves to draw. With drawings, he can erase the things that don’t turn out right. In real life, problems aren’t so easily fixed. As Bird struggles to understand the death of his beloved grandfather and his older brother’s drug addiction, he escapes into his art. Drawing is an outlet for Bird’s emotions and imagination, and provides a path to making sense of his world. […] Bird is a touching look at a young boy coping with real-life troubles. Readers will be heartened by Bird’s quiet resilience, and moved by the healing power of putting pencil to paper.—publisher’s comments

Bird_1When we first meet Mekhai (aka Bird), he is sitting on his bed, looking out his bedroom window and drawing. His work is pinned to the walls, a sketchpad is on his lap and he is rendering the scene: the bird, prominent, is soaring above the rooftops. My first thought, before I began author Zetta Elliott’s artful narration, was that opening scene of Peter waking and peering out the window at a day and world of possibility in The Snow Day by Ezra Jack Keats. It is a morning, there is a dawning, and beyond that window is an idea. Even as Peter heads out into his urban landscape to pursue a day in a life we will all remember, Mekhai will do the same, but what is remembered is more than a day as Mekhai collects in memories, thoughts, and images the past, present, and future possibility. Keats uses bright hues, an open posture and a visage of anticipation; the gifted Shadra Strickland employs cooler tones of blue and a posture of quiet meditation, hand gripped around the pencil.

“I drew a picture so I wouldn’t forget.” Mekhai says (and not for the only time in the story).

The drawings hold memory, and I adore the way Bird demonstrates this with the ball cap. I neglected to mention the blue paisley on black cap sitting on the corner of the bed. I noticed it, especially as the scene is relatively spare (like the text), but it comes to mean more as the story progresses—just as the image of the bird becomes more—but the hat is a more subtle demonstration. Of course, the book bides its time providing it a greater meaning.


The publisher’s comments above remark upon Bird’s “quiet resilience,” the book itself is a quiet one, which is not to imply it is heavy. Even as Elliott and Strickland render moments of sorrow, there are those full of delight. The loss of Granddad is buoyed by the presence of Uncle Son who tells him stories, plays him jazz records, and builds new memories in the smell and taste of sweet black coffee. Uncle Son tells him stories of those who’ve soared, “That other Bird—he’s alright. But don’t you waste your time trying to be like him. You just remember, everybody got their somethin’. And that includes you.” These are words to carry as Bird remembers his brother Marcus—where they had the same interests, where paths diverge. Marcus stops drawing.

bird saxophone shadra1

Elliott is fluid with time—flawless. Bird begins to talk about the slow and painful loss of Marcus and we shift into the memory, experiencing it. Granddad is there, a steady arm. We come to grieve them both—for what was lost. But the memories are not anchored in anger or disappointment, and this makes a huge difference to how the story is weighted: the drawing of Mekhai’s that closes the story is one of love and optimism.

Bird is not some insulting spoonful of sugar about a boy who experiences hardship and loss of two very important people in his life, but there is an anticipation of Bird’s potential. He tapes his broken pencil back together.  He does what he can. But the book is clear that there are situations and people with no easy fix, if any at all. Hard choices are made, consequences deeply felt. While a body could take Bird and make fliers about the evils of _______, Bird is the effective witness, the youthful eyes and voice that sees and speaks and tapes pencils in a move to heal what can be healed. And one of the many beauties of the book is how much Marcus is not demonized—he’s mourned—he is still loved and part of Mekhai’s consciousness (e.g. art/hat/rooftops).


There is an exchange about art: between graffiti art on the streets and the works hung in museums and to whom one belongs. It is a complex moment (one of many) in book that isn’t going for simple; thoughtful—yet accessible. I can contemplate the ideas of temporality, of legacy and of erasure, but within the book I am compelled to hear the story Mekhai (Elliott) has to share. Bird is ‘quietly resilient’ in that it keeps moving forward. Indeed, since we open in a future looking back, Mekhai as we come to meet him is already moving forward. He didn’t stop drawing. He doesn’t have to forget in order to move forward, or fix everything. He is working at that somethin’ everybody has.

“I like to draw. I’m not real good at it yet, but I try to practice every day. Uncle Son says that’s how you get good at a thing—do it over and over until you can practically do it with your eyes closed.

For now I keep my eyes open ‘cause I’m still learning how to get it right. It’s kind of hard. Sometimes, the picture I draw on the page doesn’t look like the real thing. Other times, the picture I draw looks even better than what I’m copying. That’s what I like about drawing—you can fix stuff that’s messed up just by using your imagination or rubbing your eraser over the page.”

I mentioned the opening scene. Strickland conveys a great deal in that illustration, a lot of which is realized as the story is told. The overlaying/replacement of “Mekhai’s illustrations” on the landscape, as the landscape, is lovely; his imagination at work in his envisioning of the world. I appreciate how, when we are introduced to Marcus, we see his face. From this page forward some part of it (if not its entirety) is concealed; until Mekhai draws it (vs the book’s renderings). The perspectives, the presence of doors, windows, skylines, chains/bars, lighting…as with the easy way the text draws you in, the thoughtfully-crafted illustrations may prove to have a deceptive simplicity. Whether the reader is conscious of the crafting or no, Strickland and Elliott do not present a book about the power of art without demonstrating their own remarkable skill.

Needless to say, Bird is a must.

recommendations…Powell’s has it marked ages 8-12. I would go younger and older. Elliott and Strickland make it accessible to the grade-school into middle- set, but the writing and conversation is there for older. For those who enjoy the urban landscape, and the arts; and deftly handled realism.


Zetta Elliott, the short version of her biography reads: “I’m a black feminist writer of poetry, plays, essays, novels, and stories for children. I was born and raised in Canada, but have lived in the US for nearly 20 years. I currently live in my beloved Brooklyn. When I’m not writing, you might find me strolling through the botanic garden…” Read the long version and become better acquainted. Also check out her YA novels: A Wish After Midnight (2010), Ship of Souls (2012), and The Deep (2013).

Shadra Strickland “studied, design, writing, and illustration at Syracuse University and later went on to complete her M.F.A. at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. She won the Ezra Jack Keats Award and the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent in 2009 for her work in her first picturebook, Bird, written by Zetta Elliott. Strickland co-illustrated Our Children Can Soar, winner of a 2010 NAACP Image Award. Shadra is also the illustrator of A Place Where Hurricanes Happen (Random House, 2010), written by Renee Watson: a story of four children in New Orleans before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina. Shadra travels the country conducting workshops and sharing her work with children, teachers, and librarians. She currently works and teaches illustration at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, Maryland.” –via her site’s “info”

check out:

the Book Trailer

&  7 Imps breakfast (aka interview) Shadra Strickland 

& Lee & Low’s Book Talk w/ Zetta Elliott

{images belong to Shadra Strickland}


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