May 16, 2016
How to Terrorize Your Child with Margaret Wise Brown
We were at the bookstore a few weeks ago, and I couldn’t narrow down my selection of picture books.
“Should we get,” I proposed to Harriet, “The Fox and the Star, by Coralie Bickford-Smith, or The Dead Bird, by Margaret Wise Brown.” I was emphatically waving the latter in the air.
Harriet pointed to the other one. “Why would I want to read a book about a dead bird?”
“Only because it’s a reissued book by a literary icon that dares to confront uncomfortable issues of mortality.”
“No,” she said.
I said, “Why?”
She said, “I don’t want to read books about dead things.”
She was still annoyed about a recent book I’d read her in which the Grim Reaper comes to tea and takes away the children’s grandmother, and everybody understands and feels good about the whole thing. Even though the children appear to left without a guardian. And even though the book doesn’t address the question of death coming for children, or young parents—would we put the kettle on for the reaper then? Though if someone wrote that book, I’d probably make Harriet read it too.
“So we’re getting The Dead Bird,” I told her. The illustrations are beautiful—by the award-winning illustrator of Last Stop On Market Street— and normalizing death is healthy and wasn’t there a dead bird in Sidewalk Flowers by Jon-Arno Lawson and Sydney Smith? And everybody liked that book.
And Harriet said, “No.”
“The Dead Bird,” I said.
She said, “No dead bird.” And she seemed kind of immoveable, so I didn’t want to push it.
Two weeks later, we were at the library and I saw The Dead Bird on the new releases shelf.
“Now isn’t that lucky,” I said. “A brand new copy of The Dead Bird, and nobody else has picked it up yet. It must be fate. The book was meant for us.”
“Do you think nobody has picked it up,” said Harriet, “because nobody would ever, ever want to read it?”
But I pooh-poohed her. Dropped the book into our library bag. A red-letter day—we’d brought The Dead Bird Home. What a find!
I told her, “I can’t wait to read this.”
She said, “I can.”
I told her, “Just wait. It’s about death. And dying! Come on, you’re going to like it.”
“I won’t,” she said.
I said, “You’ll see.”
Today I told her, “I’m writing a blog post about you reading The Dead Bird.”
She said, “I’m still not going to read it.”
“But how am I going to write the blog post if you don’t?
She told me, “I read it already, actually. By myself.”
“And did you like it?”
She said, “No. It’s about a dead bird. What’s to like?”
I admitted to her, “You know, the New York Times Book Review shares your assessment of it. And of the Grim Reaper book also.”
She said, “I told you.”
I said to her, “Who are you? Are you even my child? Ursula Nordstrom would be rolling in her grave if she could hear you right now.”
And she said, “Yeah. And then Margaret Wise Brown would go ahead and write a picture book about it. And then wouldn’t you like to go and try to make me read that too.”
“You’re not going to let me read you The Dead Bird then.”
And Harriet said, “No.”