I hate books with sad endings. But I love Bob Staake’s.
The Donut Chef is in heavy rotation in our house. I cannot eat a donut without proclaiming, “There’s nothing quite like glazed, I think!”
So when I spied a new title, Bluebird, on prominent display in my child’s library at open house, I couldn’t resist removing it from its perch for a peek. My first grader came home with it a few weeks later much to my delight.
Every workshop on children’s writing I’ve attended, particularly those on picture books, says you must have a happy ending or at least end on a positive note of some sort. Kids need to know they will prevail in some fashion. Lately, I‘ve been finding many books that are heartbreaking! After reading Bluebird, I have to say, my excitement in finding a new Staake book was quelled somewhat by the poignant moments at the end of it.
A lonely boy begins a new school year. Two bullies have him pegged from the moment the class queues up outside. After school, he heads in one direction, the rest of the children, the other. He is all alone save the bluebird that has been quietly watching him all day – from tree branches and windowsills. Immersed in his solitary confinement, he does not notice the bird flit along beside him, until she swoops in low over his head and engages him. With a fun mixture of tag, hide-and-seek, and follow-the-leader, the two become friends as they move through the city. These are the only times we see the boy smile. As he floats a boat in the park, the bird perched upon its mast, drawing the attention and friendship of a nearby boy and girl, readers rejoice with the boy and finally relax. He will be okay. He has found happiness, even if one bright spot of it.
And then he passes under the bridge – where three bullies want not friendship, but his beloved toy boat. At first, the bird hangs back, watching from atop the bridge. I wanted the bird to rescue him, but the workshops have also taught me that protagonists need to solve problems for themselves. Still, I was angry that his new friend was seemingly hanging him out to dry. But when the situation turns dire and the boy truly needs him, she swoops in. She blocks the blow the boy would’ve received from a stick thrown by the bullies, but sacrifices her own life in the process. To their possibly redeeming credit, the bullies are appalled by the result of their actions. A flurry of rainbow-hued birds lifts the boy and the bluebird into the sky for the spiritual denouement.
His friend dies? He finally has someone that makes him smile and she’s dead? This is not the gooey goodness of a glazed donut! But it does adhere to that positive tenet of children’s literature: through the process of nurturing this friendship and finding what makes him happy, the boy can now fly on his own. The bluebird has taught him how to find happiness on his own.
The plot of this book is riveting and transcendent. What is astounding is that there is no narrative text whatsoever. Staake tells this incredibly intricate and rich tale with nary a word. It is a true testament to his amazing graphic skills.
This book may not have been what I was expecting, but happiness rarely is. Bluebird joins Bob Staake’s catalog as another superb example of children’s literature.