May 16, 2013


Bluebird. By Bob Staake. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.

     A short, wordless, beautifully presented, bittersweet tale, Bob Staake’s Bluebird tackles some big issues in a wonderfully sensitive way – despite one glaring oversight that kids who become emotionally involved in the highly affecting story are likely to notice. The book, created primarily in shades of grey, features round-headed, stylized children portrayed in a style that is quite recognizably Staake’s. One child in particular draws Staake’s and the reader’s attention: he is lonely, isolated, walking with his eyes cast down and excluded from the happy games of the other kids. There is no way to know why; this is just the way things are – and a way that many sensitive children feel. The boy is laughed at in school and clearly isolated and bullied, for whatever reason or for no reason at all.

     The urban landscape of the story is almost all right angles, as if accentuating the unforgiving nature of the world around this lonely boy. But a spark of color appears in the form of the bluebird of the title, colored a very rich blue indeed and trailing a lighter blue streak while flying here and there. Soon boy and bird are interacting, not unrealistically but in a way that could really happen, with the boy coming close to the bird but not too close, feeding it some cookie crumbs, smiling and laughing and enjoying its presence even as he finds himself isolated from yet another group of kids playing soccer on the street. At that point, things become less realistic but more heartwarming, as the bluebird seems to realize what is going on and actually flies to the boy and perches on his shoulder. The two go to the park – a stylized Central Park, in New York City – and have a lovely time playing with a small boat on a lake; the boy even makes a couple of sort-of-friends there.

     But then boy and bird encounter three bullies, and what the nasty kids do even horrifies those boys themselves – leading to a tragic outcome that moves the story all the way into fairy-tale territory, as the boy is suddenly surrounded by many brightly colored birds, none of them blue, and the birds carry him skyward to a genuinely moving conclusion that will resonate with kids and adults long after they finish paging through the book.

     This is beautiful work on almost all levels, both as storytelling and as art; and it is a very moving tale indeed. But it does have what might be called a Wizard of Oz fallacy. In the movie version of that story, which also contrasts grey (actually sepia) with bright color, Dorothy overcomes all obstacles and disposes of the Wicked Witch of the West, returning happily to her home at last – but the movie never resolves the incident that propelled Dorothy to Oz in the first place: the viciousness of nasty neighbor and landowner Almira Gulch, who becomes the witch in Oz. Miss Gulch has arranged for Toto to be destroyed, remember? So what is going to happen to Toto and Dorothy after the movie’s happy ending? There is no way to know – just as there is no way to know what will happen next to Staake’s sad, bullied little boy when he no longer has the bluebird around to cheer him up and help him connect with a more-pleasant, less-grey world. We can hope for the best for him, as we do for Dorothy and Toto, but it is just that: a hope, scarcely a certainty. And yes, kids will notice, as generations of them have noticed the narrative flaw (or omission, if you prefer) in the famous 1939 film.

     Still, Bluebird is so beautifully drawn and so lovingly told that the book will linger in family members’ thoughts far longer than more-elaborate books usually do. This bird is scarcely the proverbial bluebird of happiness – there is too much grey in Staake’s world for anything so simplistic, and in this way Staake’s New York parallels L. Frank Baum’s original vision of Kansas as well as the one transferred to the movie screen. But what Staake does offer is a bluebird of possibility, and in the real world, that is about the most that any child, or adult, can hope to find.

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