Woah. This book needs to come with a warning: Massive Emotional Experience.
I have read a lot of picture books – thousands – but I haven’t been affected by one like this before, and neither have the kids.
Bluebird is a textless tale told in muted colours, graphic novel style, about a very lonely little boy. He encounters a bluebird – who stands out as you can see from the cover. The bluebird coaxes the boy out of his lonely world and they have a lovely time together. Sharing a biscuit, sailing a little boat on the lake – all the things you’d want to do with a friend.
The story is vast. So much happens on every spread that you feel like you’re watching a feature length story, condensed into a little book.
Things are going great until, in an isolated part of the park, they encounter a group of bullies. They fight the boy to take his boat from him. The boy wrestles it back and runs off. But the lead bully throws a stick after him and the bluebird deftly flies in to take the impact.
The bird is killed.
I mean – WHAT?!!!? It is such a shock – you just don’t expect this in a picture book do you? And that’s because you rarely get this kind of story in a picture book – unflinchingly hard hitting.
The bullies, subdued, run away and the boy is left alone. Then a little red bird comes along, then a yellow, a green, a purple one and so on. The colourful birds pick up the boy by his rucksack and fly him up, past the skyrisers and into the clouds. He releases the bird who flies into a cloud and disappears.
To me it was clear that the bird didn’t come back to life but went onto some sort of bird after life. My daughter Jess thought the same too and was happy about it. My son Toby completely denied this, maintaining that the bird was fine and flew off to have other adventures. Jess is OK with embracing emotional things about death – Toby really isn’t. He said he didn’t want to read this book again. I know he found it upsetting. Unexpectedly so. But death – and loneliness, and bullying – these are all things that are part of life, and I’ve always been of the opinion that we should confront these things.
This would be a good starting point for children who have been bullied, or are lonely, or who have had an experience with death. Particularly so as there is no text – the child reader can vocalise the story themselves.
But aside from that, this is a powerful story. It is beautiful and profound and incredibly moving. It sits there on the shelves, almost missed among the vibrantly coloured books beside it. Indeed, it’s been at the bookshop since the summer last year but for whatever reason, I only picked it up this week. I am so glad I did.
You know those people who tell you that picture books are just for babies and aren’t real ‘proper’ stories? Show them this. This is a BIG STORY that just happens to be told in a little book. You engage with it just as you would with a longer story, or a book officially deemed to be for an older age group.
But however old you are – I defy you to read this and remain unmoved. It really is an incredible achievement to create a picture book like this. I hope that more people discover it.