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Review of the Day: Grumpy Bird by Jeremy Tankard

Grumpy Bird
By Jeremy Tankard
Scholastic Press
ISBN 978-0439851473
Ages 4-8
On shelves now

Grumpy Bird and me, we got off to a rough start. I first laid eye on the impossibly irritable fowl one day while traipsing about a local bookstore. There on an upper shelf sat, “Grumpy Bird”. He was grumpy. He was a bird. With so many other books vying for my attention I slipped the book from the shelf and gave it a quick once over. Flip flip flip, back on the shelf it went, and I didn’t think of it again for many months. Really, not until a colleague essentially grabbed me by the lapels and said to me, “You MUST love this book!!!”, and proceeded to demonstrate the readability of the title did I have to concede that I had misjudged “Grumpy”. Worse still, what I had in my hands was an exceedingly rare addition to my collection of must-have readalouds. What on earth was I thinking when I didn’t pay Tankard’s book the proper amount of respect? So now I am here to right a great wrong. If you, like myself, have merely glimpsed at a copy of this book and then continued on with your sweet little lives, stop whatever it is that you are doing and give “Grumpy Bird” the attention he so desperately deserves. You’ll never look at an avian grumpfest the same way again.

It happens. One day you wake up on the wrong side of the bed or, in this particular case, nest. When Bird woke up one day he was, not to put too fine a point on it, grumpy. With grumpiness comes a kind of ennui so, without eating, playing, or flying, Bird goes for a walk. If he was hoping for solitude, though, this probably wasn’t the best plan. As Bird meets up with various friends they all join him for his stroll. First Sheep. Then Rabbit. Then Raccoon. By the time Beaver and Fox join the fun the whole group has taken on the appearance of a rather low-key parade. Slowly Bird realizes that what he does (like lifting a leg or jumping) the others do too. Cheered by this and no longer grumpy, Bird encourages everyone to join him at his home for a snack. The final shot in the book is of a remarkably peppy Bird offering an enormous worm to his somewhat dumbstruck following.

This book is a two-parter charmer. Part one is the choice of wording and part two the illustrations. In terms of readaloud possibilities, Tankard knows how to use the rule of basic repetition and make it familiar but increasingly funny as the story continues. When Bird does his walking he is asked over and over what he’s up to by the other animals. The first time is a terse, “Walking”. The second is a pointed, “I’m walking . . . It’s no fun.” With each additional animal Bird gets more and more frustrated until he’s finally saying, “WHY DOES EVERYONE WANT TO KNOW WHAT I’M DOING?! . . . I’m just walking, okay?” As any person who has ever read to a large group of kids knows, many books work well one-on-one, but only a few books work with large groups. Because Tankard’s book sets up all kinds of possibilities in terms of voice and increasing volume, I can’t wait until I get another group of kids in my library so that I can break out Bird’s snarky bon mot, “Let me give you a hint . . . You do it by placing one foot in front of the other.”

And of course there’s the art. If Jeremy Tankard has taught us anything today it’s that bags under eyes are comedic gold. There’s not a man, woman, or child alive today that can’t relate to the glower firmly affixed to Bird’s face as he grumbles through his day. His white tennis shoes with the red sides are just the frosting on the cake in terms of personal appearance. Consider the finer details of Tankard’s art too, while you’re at it. The mix of computer graphics and good old-fashioned pen and inks is heady. The very first spread after the title page shows full stars of a variety of shapes and sizes hanging in a sky where an orange sun has recently popped up in the lower right-hand corner. Bird has a single eye open and there’s a lovely play of soft dewy dawn light flickering across his sorely aggrieved mug. As the book continues, clearly cartoonish elements mix with smudges, photographs, and eye-popping primary colors. Characters come onto the scene in both the foreground and background, and the result is that even as the story continues at a smart consistent pace, the eye gets to hop to and fro, back and forth, around a landscape of new animals and images. And though every animal in this book is “cute” in a basic sense, it wouldn’t surprise me one jot if I learned that Mr. Tankard was a whiz on the alternative comics scene. His bunny is adorable but tweak it a little and consider how terrifying it could be with a twist of the pen here and there.

As any librarian or bookseller will tell you, grumpiness sells. Funny grumpiness, anyway. “Grumpy Bird” has the potential to be a great companion to Mrs. Biddlebox by Linda Smith or even Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst. It’s a standout title that I’m hoping has a slow burn. A low-key buzz is already surrounding it. As more and more children are introduced to its charm, I hope we begin to see a real grassroots effort to place “Grumpy Bird” in the picture book canon where it so clearly deserves to rest. A do-not-miss title.
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About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.