Dealing with Death:
A Close Look at Margaret Wise Brown and Remy Charlip's Picture Book Classic,
The Dead Bird

Rebecca Platzner
School of Communication, Information and Library Studies
Rutgers University


© 1999 Rebecca Platzner platzner@scils.rutgers.edu, School of Communication, Information and Library Studies, Rutgers University
Katharine Sharp Review ISSN 1083-5261, No. 8, Summer 1999 [http://www.lis.uiuc.edu/review/8/platzner.html]

    This article provides a close examination of Margaret Wise Brown and Remy Charlip's The Dead Bird, a picture book intended for young children which addresses the subject of death in a straightforward manner. Detailed visual and textual analyses explore the ways in which the author and illustrator's work complement one another to create a response in the reader, a response that has kept the book in print since it was published in 1958.


    INTRODUCTION

  1. In Twentieth Century Western culture, issues of death and dying tend to be uncomfortable, particularly when young children are involved. Yet even young children must face the fact of death. Today's media-rich environment brings evidence of a dangerous world, a world in which children themselves are the victims of bizarre and unnatural death in far away places such as Bosnia and Belfast as well as in the cities and suburbs we call home. Like adults, children also experience the more natural deaths of loved ones, of friends, of pets and other animals. How we help children to cope with the death in their lives remains important. One way parents and professionals seek to help young children to deal with death is through books. Indeed, there have been many fine picture books that serve this purpose well.{1}

  2. The Tenth Good Thing About Barney, by Judith Viorst (1971), and more recently, Dog Heaven, by Cynthia Rylant (1995), are two of the many picture books that can help children and adults cope with the loss of a pet — in these instances, a pet dog. Viorst's book focuses on the loss of a specific pet, Barney, while in Dog Heaven, Rylant deals with the topic in a more universal manner. Rather than showing us one person's loss of a specific animal, she shows us the happy place to which all dogs go when they die.

  3. A death that young children often experience is the death of a grandparent. In Annie and the Old One, by Miska Miles (1971), a young girl tries to stop her grandmother's death, but eventually understands and makes peace with the fact that her grandmother will die soon. In Old Pig, by Margaret Wild (1996), the granddaughter helps her grandmother prepare for her death by enjoying their final days together — playing music for her grandmother, and holding her grandmother as the grandmother dies. The young pig experiences the death of her grandmother, but we are distanced in the story by the anthropomorphised characters: Old Pig and her granddaughter are pigs not people.

  4. Social issues have also been faced through picture books on death. The unnatural death of war is the subject of The Wall, by Eve Bunting (1990), which tells of a child's introduction to the Vietnam War Memorial. Sadako, by Eleanor Coerr (1992) is the story of a young girl's death from the cancer she developed after the bombing of Hiroshima. Rabbit Island, by Jorg Steiner (1978), in which the death of the rabbits is only implied, can be read many ways, one of which is as a commentary on the cruelty of the treatment of animals raised for harvest. Arlene Sardine, by Chris Raschka (1998), raised questions among those interested in children's literature who are not sure what to make of a story in which the sardine heroine goes happily to her death and on to the supermarket shelves.

  5. In the Nineteenth Century, books intended for children in which children died were common, reflecting the fact that children were likely to experience the death of siblings or friends during their childhood. In the first half of the Twentieth Century, however, when death was no longer an everyday experience, adults came to believe that death was too harsh a topic for elementary school-aged children, and books about death for children were scarce. Margaret Wise Brown and Remy Charlip's The Dead Bird (1958) was one of the first books in this century to break the trend. The book, which deals with a gentle, non-violent, but nonetheless very real death, was a breakthrough book not only because it deals with death in a format suitable for very young children, but also because it does not sentimentalize its topic.

  6. Originally published as a poem in 1938, in The Fish With the Deep Sea Smile, the text of The Dead Bird was reconfigured as a picture book, illustrated by Remy Charlip, in 1958, six years after Brown's death (Marcus, 1997). Today, 40 years later, The Dead Bird is still in print. Now considered a classic of its genre, The Dead Bird still "works" with children, and it is worthy of serious study. This article examines this remarkable and successful book to see how Brown and Charlip handle their difficult subject through literary and visual elements.


    THE TEXT

  7. Fans of Brown's (1947) Good Night Moon may be startled to find The Dead Bird shelved next to their favorite gentle bedtime story, for death and grieving are subjects that some still find upsetting or offensive in children's books. Yet The Dead Bird, which was based on an experience in Brown's childhood (Marcus, 1992), like Good Night Moon, remains a classic perhaps because, as Marcus writes,

    Margaret's . . . approach to children's literature . . . was so bravely unsentimental. Her books have an underlying emotional tautness and honesty about them that is both salutary and rare. They express a clear-eyed respect for the young that both children and adults immediately recognize. (p. 5)

  8. Through the story of four children who, while at play, find a dead bird and bury it, Brown's straightforward prose and Charlip's unthreatening illustrations present death and grief as natural, almost 'everyday' experiences. The book looks like a book for very young children who perhaps cannot yet read. It is small, and the deceptively simple illustrations are mostly bright flat colors. The children in the illustrations are probably a little older than the presumed age of the book's target readers — the children in the illustrations can fly kites, carry shovels, play and visit the woods by themselves. Some might argue that death and grieving are inappropriate topics for a picture storybook. Yet, the picture book form helps to achieve the simple and straightforward presentation which is a strength of the book and which, in the end, makes it appropriate for children. The illustrations and text are not morbid. Death happens on a bright green and blue kite-flying day.

  9. Although this book is 'only' about the death of a bird, the text does link this death to the deaths of people in a fairly open way — "[the children] could have a funeral and sing to [the bird] the way grown-up people did when someone died," — as well as, more obliquely, to the death of plants — "only the geraniums faded." The prose explains quite plainly what physically happens when the bird dies, for the children experience the stiffening of the limbs and the loss of warmth. Although it might be argued that the description of the bird as "cold dead and stone still with no heart beating" is harsh, not only is this an honest description, but it is also a poetic one, and the gentle and delicate brown hand lettering helps soften the words which might seem harsher in black and white typeset print. By using words like "dead" and "grave" and "funeral" without apology throughout the book, Brown removes some of their forbidden quality and makes them and the ideas they represent more normal. Indeed she puts the word "dead" right in the title on the cover, not only preparing the reader for the content of the book, but beginning to demystify that content before the book is even opened. Yet at the same time that she uses blunt vocabulary and description to approach the topic of death, she carefully chooses more general words for her characters, maintaining for her young audience a certain safety of distance from the events of the story. Rather than tell the story of John and Sue and the death of their bird, Chirpy, she tells of "the children" and "the bird." The story is thus more about the universality — or everydayness — of the situation rather than about our coming to know individuals and sharing their pain.

  10. When I first read The Dead Bird, Brown's honesty and insight took my breath away and compelled me to tell people about the book by quoting three particularly memorable moments. First, Brown tells us that "the children were very sorry the bird was dead and could never fly again. But they were glad they had found it because now they could . . . have a funeral . . . the way grown-up people did . . . ." As an adult, it is surprising to read that children could be happy to have found something dead. "Glad" and "dead" do not fit together in an adult world, and the adult equivalent of the funeral that the children gladly anticipate can only be a sad event. The children in the story, like the children who read the book, may be innocent of the deeper pain of death and simply experience a natural excitement when they get to participate in their version of the grown-up world. For the children in the book, the prose implies, burying the bird will be a more interesting way to spend the day than playing with the kite. Brown's rendering of the children's reaction is true-to life: the children are both sad and glad.

  11. After the children buried the bird and sang to it, "they cried because their singing was so beautiful and the ferns smelled so sweetly and the bird was dead." Here, Brown again captures something important. On some level, the children are aware of the beauty of the moment in which they are participating, and so they cry not only for the bird's death, but for the transience of their own beauty — symbolized by their singing — and of the beauty of the world they are experiencing — symbolized by the sweet smell of the ferns. Once again, the moment is complex: the children are not simply portrayed as 'sad.' This transcendent moment is powerfully rendered through the illustrations too, as will be discussed.

  12. In the last sentence of the story, Brown simply and honestly presents us with truths about grieving. All through the book, the bird has been referred to as "the bird" or "it." In this last sentence, after the children have buried the bird, sung to it, and cried, the vocabulary changes. The bird becomes "their bird," and the grave "his grave." Yet in this same sentence, in which the bird has changed status and now belongs to the children separate from all other birds, we learn that the bird will be forgotten: "And every day, until they forgot, they went and sang to their little dead bird and put fresh flowers on his grave." The book is not only about death, but also about the process of grieving. In those few words Brown tells us that it is all right to visit the grave to grieve as long as we need to, for in time, we will naturally forget. And because these are children — as real and important as their experience with the bird was — they will forget not only their sadness, but the bird as well. These powerful moments, as well as the rest of the story, are complemented and expanded by Remy Charlip's scrupulously well-thought-out and coherent illustrations.


    THE ILLUSTRATIONS

  13. The structure of the book, alternating white double-page spreads on which the text appears with spreads of illustrations, may be a way to honor Brown's text, which originally stood alone. In addition, the fact that the dead bird is white, like the pages on which Brown's text appears, make one wonder if Charlip was subtly connecting the bird's death to Brown's, a poignant possibility. Indeed, the white pages, empty of all but Brown's brown words could be seen as a reminder of the emptiness left by her death. But speculation aside, making the prose and illustrations each stand powerfully on its own serves to slow the reader down, while at the same time helping the reader to maintain some distance, for the reader is not 'in' the moment as it is being described. It is possible to read the book as two separate stories — just text or just illustrations. Both stories are good, but together they are better, for the illustrations complement and expand the meaning of the story.{2}

  14. The cover of the book serves as the first frame — or non-verbal sentence — of the story and sets the basic structure of the outside-of-the-woods pictures: green grass along the bottom with a bright turquoise sky above. This first illustration shows the children in the distance playing with a kite before they find the dead bird, and it is a sister picture to the last picture in the book where the children are again playing out under the turquoise sky, this time with a ball. The title page shows the same grass and sky as on the cover, but with no one present. The first picture of the story proper — begins the action. It is exactly the same as the title page, only the words are gone and the little white dead bird has appeared in the lower right corner. In the next illustrations, the children have entered the picture and find the bird, and they remain in all the subsequent pictures except for two important ones at the heart of the story.

  15. Changes in the illustrations stress all of the important moments of the story. As the reader moves slowly and gently into the story, the first few illustrations bring the reader closer to the children but not yet up to the action, and the full figures of the children can be seen in the distance. As the children experience the bird getting cold, however, the reader is visually brought in quite close to them, as if standing in their intimate circle looking at the bird. By this time, the close frame of vision only includes the children's heads and bodies; the grass can no longer be seen. The girl, surrounded by her friends, has picked up the bird and is cradling it; she holds it close against her cheek with her eyes closed. The children both literally and figuratively embrace the bird as they make its death a part of their day. Having made the bird their own, they must then decide what to do with it.

  16. In the next picture the children have prepared a formal funeral procession, and the reader is in the audience again, set back at a safe and respectful distance. The children walk in a line from the green-grass, blue sky world on the left of the page, toward a wall of green, the woods, on the right. When the children leave the woods at the end of the book, the woods are on the left and the grass and sky are on the right. The illustrations show us that, as in a folk tales, the children go into the woods where something important happens to them. In this case, they go into the woods to deal with death, but they come out fine on the other side. When the children enter the woods to bury the bird, the illustrations change dramatically for, with one exception, in this part of the story we no longer see the sky, and the background has become dark green.

  17. The first scene in the woods, in which the boys are digging the grave for the bird, exemplifies the careful construction of these 'simple' illustrations. In this scene, the girl is gone, but we see one yellow flower to the left of the boys. The yellow is the same color as the girl's dress. In the next illustration, the single flower is gone, and the girl has returned from the left carrying flowers for the bird's grave. The flower in the first picture holds the girl's place in the reader's subconscious and indicates why she has gone.

  18. The next two illustrations are the heart of the book — when the children sing to the bird and then cry. Rather than show what the children look like as they sing and cry, Charlip creates a visual vignette of what the children are crying about. In the first picture, birds are seen flying (life), and in the second the dead bird's grave (death) is shown. The reader is once again distanced from this specific story, but experiences the impact of the moment through a rendering of the powerful universal forces behind it.

  19. The first of the pair of illustrations which accompanies the children's song, takes the view out of the solid green of the woods and above the tops of the trees, where three living birds are flying, beaks open as if they too are singing. Here, the living birds fly as the dead bird no longer can, representing the loss that the children mourn with their song: "You'll never fly again/Way up high/With other birds in the sky." These birds are silhouetted, black against the sky, and do not, therefore, have the specific features of feathers and eyes like the small dead bird, which was white. The anonymity of these birds visually highlights personal feelings for the dead bird, just as the language highlights this same distinction on the last page when "the bird" becomes "their bird." This is the only illustration in which the ground is not present, suggesting perhaps a transcendent or spiritual aspect of the moment. The form of the illustration recalls the pictures from before the children entered the woods — green along the bottom and blue sky above — and offers a visual reprieve from the dark green woods. Here, however, jagged treetops form the green band at the bottom of the page and the sky is a duller, grayish-blue, color, rendered in what appears to be an uneven watercolor wash — perhaps a wetter medium to match the children's tears — in contrast to the flat, bright turquoise sky under which the children played.

  20. In this picture, only three birds fly above the treetops. Why three? Why not one, to symbolize the one little dead bird, or four, like the four children? Actually, there are four birds, only one of them is the dead bird in its grave in the next illustration. The three birds in the sky over the woods are, in a sense, participating in the funeral of their friend. Very subtly, Charlip symbolically hints at the children's own mortality and the underlying reason for this 'practice' funeral.

  21. The second of the pair of illustrations plunges the reader out of the sky, where the living birds fly, and down to the little dead bird's grave. Here, not even see the trees in the woods are visible; only the grass on the ground and the grave can be discerned. The darkest colored page in the book, it reflects the darkest moment in the text — when the children cry. It is also the only page on which the text has been continued in the illustration, serving to tie it tightly to the previous illustration. In this one instance there can be no pause over the text but the reader must immediately turn the page to finish the sentence, making the visual contrast between the living birds and the dead bird stronger by the shortness of time implied for viewing the two illustrations. Of course, because these are the only words that appear as a part of an illustration, they are made more powerful: "Here lies a bird that is dead." It is important to notice here, too, that the brown, earth-like lettering which has rested along the bottom of the text pages like the line of green grass in the standard illustrations, follows the movement of these two central illustrations; first rising up the page with the children's song, and then falling with their tears down again to the bird's grave.

  22. The next illustration functions as a transition between emotions of grief and the continuance of life. Here, the children are still in the woods, picking flowers and placing them on the bird's grave. But now, in the background on the right, a thinning of the dark green trees, lighter green, sunlit grass, and a visible sky behind the trees show a way out of the woods. The small piece of sky that we can see here is not quite the bright turquoise of the first illustrations, but it is not the grayed watercolor sky either; it is an in-between, transitional sky. Two of the boys gather flowers near the edge of the woods. The boys' placement begins the movement of the children out into the open again and also begins the physical distancing of the reader from the story.

  23. In the final picture — the sister picture to the cover — the children are once again playing under the turquoise sky, and once again with something that, like a bird, flies in the air. On this new day — apparent because the children are wearing different colored clothing as they toss the ball — life is back to normal. After their experiences with death in the woods, the children are fine. Yet this illustration is not exactly the same as the cover illustration. Now the woods are off to the left of the page, and, partially hidden by the trees, is the bird's grave. The children's experience with the dead bird has become a part of their lives: the text explains that the children visit the grave to grieve, and the illustration shows that the woods and the grave are now literally 'in the picture' — a part of their lives. Playing and continuing with normal life can exist naturally with the process of grieving and the knowledge of death gained in the woods.


    CONCLUSION

  24. It is important to note that although the children illustrated do not reflect different ethnicities, they are universal children in the sense that they are without name or location, Also, issues of gender stereotypes are surprisingly well handled for a book published in 1958. The children comprise three boys and a girl. It is the girl who is active and picks up and embraces the bird at the beginning of the story — she is not afraid to touch a dead thing. A boy carries the shovel and digs the hole while the girl picks flowers, but she carries the dead bird and boys pick flowers too. The girl plays with the boys both on the cover and in the last illustration. She stands still in the last illustration while the boys run about, but is active on the cover where one of the boys is still, though she isn't actually ever flying the kite or running or catching the ball as do some of the boys.

  25. In western culture, no matter how tactfully or poetically the theme of death is handled, its appropriateness for young children will be questioned. It is a question that, like many, may best be answered by the individual decisions of each child's caregivers. Yet with today's concern about children's exposure to unnecessary violence and death, perhaps it is especially important that children are allowed to experience the smaller deaths that are a natural part of life. The Dead Bird helps both child and caregiver to understand that encountering death and its attendant emotions is, if not an everyday experience, at least a normal experience of many children.


FOR FURTHER CONSIDERATION

For those wishing to extend their consideration of The Dead Bird, further information is presented at the website Anatomy of a Dead Bird created by the author of this article. The site includes links to excerpts of reviews and commentary on the book, information about Brown and Charlip, as well as a list of other picture books about death.


NOTES

  1. A listing of picture books regarding death can be found at http://www.scils.rutgers.edu/special/platzner/deadbird5.html

  2. A 1965 edition of The Dead Bird was consulted for this analysis. A comparison of different editions of the book shows changes in the illustrations that could influence interpretation. For example, in the recently re-issued (1995) paperback edition, the cover illustration has been changed, and thus it no longer serves to balance the last picture. Also, the colors in the newest printing are much lighter and less intense than those in the 1965 copy, and the scenes in the woods have an almost white haze over them.


REFERENCES

Brown, M. W., &. Charlip, R. (Illus.). (1958). The dead bird. New York: Young Scott.

Brown, M. W., & Hurd, C. (Illus.). (1947). Good night moon. New York: Harper.

Brown, M. W., & Rauch, R. (Illus.). (1938). The fish with the deep sea smile. New York: Dutton.

Bunting, E., & Himler, R. (Illus.). (1990). The wall. New York: Clarion.

Coerr, E., & Young, E. (Illus.). (1992). Sadako. New York: Putnam.

Marcus, L. S. (1992). Margaret Wise Brown: Awakened by the moon. Boston: Beacon Press.

Miles, M., & Parnell, P. (Illus.). (1971). Annie and the old one. Boston: Little Brown.

Raschka, C. (1998). Arlene sardine. New York: Orchard.

Rylant, C. (1995). Dog heaven. New York: Scholastic.

Steiner, J., & Muller, J. (Illus.). (1978). Rabbit island. New York: Harcourt.

Viorst, J., & Blegvad, E. (Illus.). (1971). The tenth good thing about Barney. New York: Atheneum.

Wild, M., & Brooks, R. (Illus.). (1996). Old pig. New York: Dial.


ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

The work in this essay is informed by Dr. Kay E. Vandergrift's body of scholarship, particularly her work on visual interpretive analysis, and by Louise Rosenblatt's transactional theory of Reader Response. Ms. Platzner would like to thank Dr. Vandergrift and Dr. Jane Anne Hannigan, professor emerita from Columbia University for their generous support and guidance in the creation of this piece.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rebecca Platzner is a doctoral student and adjunct instructor in the School of Communication, Information and Library Studies at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. She received an M.L.S. from Rutgers and a B.A. in English Literature from Cornell University. She teaches courses in children's and young adult literature and has contributed articles and book chapters in the professional literature.