By Zetta Elliott
Illustrations by Shadra Strickland
Bird, a New Voices Award Honor book, tells the story of a young boy struggling to make sense of a difficult world. In this BookTalk, author Zetta Elliott discusses how African American literature and her own experiences shaped Bird, and what she hopes readers of all ages learn from it.
Birds are a recurring theme in the book. Why? What about birds speaks to you?
I love birds—their smallness, their lightness, their resilience and ability to amaze: a tiny sparrow pecking at crumbs in the gutter can in an instant take to the sky and reach heights far beyond us. I was also teaching African American literature at the time and so was very aware of the way motifs of flight recur in our stories. I wanted to touch on the idea of uplift—those who are able must help those in need. That’s how blacks throughout the African diaspora have survived for centuries, and art (music especially) has helped people transcend their reality, even just for a moment. So I used overlapping motifs of flight to make sure that hit home. Despite enslavement and segregation, poverty and continued discrimination, black people have always found a way to rise above their oppression. Some succumb, but many others survive—and then they share their stories of survival.
What part of this book was the biggest challenge for you?
When I first wrote the story at the start of 2002, there was nothing challenging about it at all. I wrote it quickly—in less than a day, I believe. The story was simply ready to come out. The biggest challenge came in 2006 when my editor asked me to turn the book into a [longer form]. It was difficult to accept praise for the unique voice I had created but then to manipulate that voice after I felt I had said all I needed to say. The story felt complete to me, but it wasn’t complete to others; and so it was challenging to satisfy other readers’ needs.
What do you think of Shadra Strickland’s illustrations for Bird? Does the book look the way you envisioned it?
I think Shadra’s illustrations are beautiful! I initially envisioned something weightier, more like collage or pastiche using antique photographs, childish sketches, etc. But what Shadra produced was perfect because it reflects the lightness of flight—and we’re better able to see the layers: Bird’s drawings, his dreams, and the actual reality of his life.
What inspired you to write this book? Were there any connections to or influences from your childhood? What kind of research did you do? Basically, I cobbled together bits of my own experience, but I wasn’t really conscious of that as I was writing. As I said, I was already teaching African American literature, and was particularly struck by the folktale about enslaved Africans who flew home to escape slavery. My paternal grandfather had a best friend named Sonny, and that’s how I came up with Uncle Son’s name. I’ve worked with children and teenagers, so I know how they respond to poems, music: they love to make things, to create. I met one young woman who was an amazing graffiti artist, and she showed me her book once; it’s “real” art, it’s legitimate, even if others dismiss it. My older brother had personal problems, and once I came downstairs and found the microwave was missing. I told my mother, and she simply refused to admit that there was a problem. I don’t know if my brother took the microwave to support an addiction; he was an alcoholic, though I’m not sure I knew that at the time. The theft escalated, and eventually he was imprisoned. I think the silence and denial within my family contributed to his difficulties. I was in college at the time, so I wasn’t a child; but I was silenced then, and that’s all we’ve got now—no one has heard from my older brother in ten years.
Bird tackles some very serious subject matter. Why did you choose to approach these subjects through a picture book as opposed to something aimed at older readers?
Children are open: they see, and hear, and feel things, just like adults; but they don’t have access to the same information, and they can’t process that information in the same way. I understand the impulse to protect children from difficult subject matter, but sometimes our efforts to shield children actually silence kids instead. The children I’ve worked with know about drugs; they know what junkies look like, how they act. But they may not understand why. Many urban children have had a family member affected by drug addiction, and increasingly, many children in small towns are also having their families torn apart by drugs such as crystal meth. We teach children to “just say no,” but we don’t always give them the tools they need to understand addiction. I felt a picture book could promote discussion between children and adults. I definitely see parents reading this book with a lot of conversation—it’s okay to stop reading and start talking! Give the child an opportunity to ask questions or express emotions. When we demystify things such as drug addiction, we empower children to make better choices.
What do you hope readers take away from Bird?
I have different hopes for different readers. I really hope adults understand that children have questions that need to be answered; silence isn’t always the best response to trauma or crisis. I hope elders realize they are still needed: we need their stories, their wisdom, and their past experiences to help us navigate the present and the future.
And I hope children understand that it’s okay to feel frustrated or angry or upset when bad things happen. I want children to know there are constructive and destructive ways to deal with our emotions. So many kids, especially in the city, don’t have art class: they aren’t being taught how to express themselves creatively. But we all need to express our emotions, and sometimes art can be a way of memorializing those we’ve lost. If you can imagine a different way of being, you can become a different person. We need to feed the imagination of our youth so they can imagine different possibilities for their lives and their communities.
About This Title
Interest Level:Grades 3 - 8
Reading Level:Grades 3 - 3
Middle Grade, Siblings, Mentors, Grandparents, Families, Coping with Death, African/African American Interest, Art, Empathy/Compassion
25 Years Anniversary Collection, African American English Collection Grades 3-6, African American English Collection Middle School, Appendix B Diverse Collection Grades 3-6, High-Low Books for Preteens (Grades 4-6), High-Low Books for Teens (Middle and High School), New Voices Award Winners & Honors Collection, Art and The Arts Collection , Bestsellers and Favorites Collection, Death & Grief, English Fiction Middle School, English Fiction Grades 6-12, English Fiction Grades 3-6, Sibling Collection Grades K-5, Social and Emotional Learning Collection, RITELL Grades 3-6 Collection, Realistic Fiction Grades 3-5, Realistic Fiction Middle School, English Guided Reading Level Q, Pedro Noguera Diverse Collection Grades 3-5, Pedro Noguera Reluctant Readers Collection , Fluent English, Fluent Dual Language , Coretta Scott King Award Collection, Recognizing & Managing Emotions Collection, Social and Emotional Learning Collection
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