When I was a kid I tried to learn how to draw by reading Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. A lot of the book was dedicated to showing your average layman how to draw by concentrating on drawing the negative spaces between the object you wanted to render and its environment. I haven’t thought about that book in a very long time and probably could have continued on my merry way without it, had it not been for my stumbling on A Funny Little Bird by Jennifer Yerkes. A sweet story with a sublimely subtle but infinitely clever premise and ending, this is a tale about adaptation, camouflage, acceptance, pride, and standing out by blending in. It’s a metaphor for introverts and the unsung heroes in our lives. Strange and lovely all at once, here’s one book that turns simplicity into an art.
For you see there once was a funny little bird that seemed to disappear into the background wherever it went. When it was invisible to the eye, it was lonely. When it was noticed, it was teased. One day, in a fit of pique, the bird sets out to find its own path. Along the way it collects all the beautiful things it can find, building itself up, puffing itself up with pride. When a clever fox tries to take advantage of the bird’s new one-of-a-kind look, the bird realizes the advantage of invisibility. It isn’t just that it can hide from dangers. It can help others hide as well. This is a bird with a calling.
The book was an Opera Prima finalist in the Bologna Book Fair Ragazzi Award 2012. Originally published in France as Drole d’oiseau, this is a title that understands the importance of minimalism in children’s literature. In terms of the storyline itself, the trick to Yerkes’s art is in making absence tangible. The bird itself is only suggested by the hint of a wing here, and eye and beak there, and maybe two legs (if it’s walking). The end result is that there can be as much fun in locating the bird as there is in reading its story.
Part of what makes the book so interesting is that it could be read in two entirely opposite ways. On the one hand you could think of it as a conformity tale. The bird isn’t noticed as unique so it gets some awesome feathers in the hope that it won’t be teased or ignored anymore and learns that standing out can make you a target. That’s one way to read the story. The other way is to say that the book is anti-conformity. The bird stands out and then tries to be like all the other birds by grabbing some feathers, only to find that by being near invisible its unique talents give it an edge. Naturally when I think of picture books about fitting in I think (for good or for evil) of Marcus Pfister’s Rainbow Fish. Unlike that book, however, fitting in isn’t the ultimate goal and neither is standing out. Being true to yourself is the storyline here, and as such it’s kind of an anti-Rainbow Fish.
Your standard Ugly Duckling storyline is where a creature locates another of its kind and finds solace that way. Then there are the books where an outsider finds a community of fellow outsiders. But what makes A Funny Little Bird so unique, in a way, is that it doesn’t follow any of these set formulas. If our hero finds peace of mind it’s by single-handedly coming to a kind of peace within himself. He doesn’t rely on others to give him that approbation or acceptance. Maybe that’s why I like this so much more than your average rebel picture book fare. It actually contains fairly practical advice for living in the world. Use the strengths you have, even if they seemingly put you at a disadvantage.
As a child, I strived to attain invisibility. I did everything within my power to hide myself from the eyes of my peers, often with remarkable success. Happily, I don’t feel I really missed out on much as a result. But in my younger days, it might have been nice to read about a creature that could successfully blend in with its surroundings. Maybe I would have found a kindred spirit of some kind. At the very least I would have found a book worth owning and loving. Justifiably a hit overseas, one can hope that A Funny Little Bird will find its own audience of shrinking violets here in the States. Beautiful with a wit of its own, Yerkes shows that you don’t have to be flashy to be remarkable.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
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Other Reviews: Shelf Awareness
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