Jan Thornhill’s book, I Found a Dead Bird: The Kids’ Guide to the Cycle of Life & Death, is just the kind of nonfiction title that many kids will find cool. It’s an up close look at death through a mostly scientific lens, how it happens and why it happens. This is a fascinating – and potentially controversial – book, as I can imagine some parents finding it too grim or too graphic for their kids. Thornhill addresses the fact that death is a taboo topic for many humans early in her book, and suggests that avoiding the subject will likely just add to fear and anxiety.
The matter-of-fact tone established at the outset continues through the whole text, which helps to normalize the subject matter to a certain extent. I like how Thornhill explains her reason for writing the book in the first pages:
“I found a dead bird. It made me sad. But I also had a lot of questions, like: why did it have to die? how did it die? what would happen to it now it was dead?”
She then proceeds to look at death from just about every angle: food chains, lifespans of different species, predation, the negative influence of humanity on ecosystems, war, forensics, medical research, cloning, grieving, funeral customs. Naturally, the text can only touch on these topics and likely spark further questions in kids’ minds, leading to more reading and learning and questioning. In certain cases, I don’t think that it’s a smart (or sensitive) move to offer such a fleeting analysis of potentially disturbing images: “Oh, yes kids, and another way people die is in wars” (insert image here). Don’t get me wrong, I know that kids see many images of war these days, but I don’t think that this means they understand these images or find them normal or are unaffected by them. I would be hesitant to put this book into just any kid’s hands, as I’m not sure that all children who had recently experienced a loss would handle the text and images easily.
The book has a lot of kid appeal in its design, bright colours, arresting digital illustration and a look similar to Guinness Records in the way that lots of facts appear all over the pages in small bites. And then there’s the “Yuck Factor.” Take the series of pictures of the decomposing piglet, for instance. It’s gross, but interesting. I like how Thornhill encourages kids to say “Yuck,” stating that this reaction is totally natural. But then she encourages them to learn about it anyway. Say yuck, and move on. Good lesson.
I found a dead bird has won numerous awards and is one of the titles in the running for a 2008 Ontario Library Association Silver Birch Award . It’s sure to start many a conversation in the classroom and around the dinner table.