________________ CM . . . . Volume XIII Number 10 . . . . January 4, 2007


I Found a Dead Bird: The Kids’ Guide to the Cycle of Life & Death.

Jan Thornhill.
Toronto, ON: Maple Tree Press, 2006.
64 pp., pbk. & cl., $12.95 (pbk.), $21.95 (cl.).
ISBN 1-897066-71-6 (pbk.), ISBN 1-897066-70-8 (cl.).

Subject Headings:
Death-Juvenile literature.
Life cycles (Biology)-Juvenile literature.

Grades 4-8 / Ages 9-13.

Review by Barbara McMillan.

**** /4

It’s not unusual for students in Early Years science to grow flowering plants from seeds and to observe mealworms or caterpillars as larvae that pupate and eventually emerge as adult beetles and butterflies. Information books that present and illustrate the life spans and/or life cycles of particular plants and animals typically accompany such investigatory experiences. Much less common are books that deal more generally with lifetimes, particularly the lifetimes of plants and animals including humans. Two such books that I have used in courses with future Early Years teachers are Bryan Mellonie and Robert Ingpen’s Lifetimes: A Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children (A Bantam Book, 1983) and David Rice’s Lifetimes (A Dawn Publication, 1997). As informative and sensitively written as these two books are, Jan Thornhill’s I Found a Dead Bird is certain to become a favourite of many teachers and students who are interested in the life sciences and what it means for a living organism to die.

     Thornhill begins her book by telling readers that she found a dead bird. This discovery made her sad, but, at the same time she “had a lot of questions, like: Why did it have to die? How did it die? What would happen to it now that it was dead?” In the subsequent sixty pages, she answers these three questions and many more. There are sections on life and what it means to be alive, life expectancies, how organisms die, the extinction of a species, the minutes and hours following death including rigor mortis, decomposition, and “earth to earth,” the preservation of organisms by mummification, freezing, tanning, and fossilization, and cultural practices such as wakes, funerals, burials and beliefs associated with the after-life. Each of these topics is presented in a forthright, factual manner, and the images and written material successfully downplay the emotions and opinions often associated with such content. Thornhill invites readers to think about the cycle of life and death, and to think about it as biologists, biochemists, biophysicists, archeologists, forensic scientists, and medical researchers. Each page, as a result, contains information of interest. On page 9, for example, Thornhill writes: “If all of the offspring of a single housefly survived to multiply and all their young survived, and so on and so on, in only four months an area the size of the Amazon rain forest would be covered waist-deep in flies.” When presenting ecological information about food chains and food webs, readers are told that human beings are the world’s number one predator: “Around the world we kill more than a billion pigs for pork every year and 300 million cattle for beef” (page 23). On page 35, Thornhill has used a striking illustration of a dead robin surrounded by fleeing blood-sucking parasites that shows why we should wear gloves or use a shovel to move a dead animal if we don’t want to be the new living host. When discussing decomposition, she explains why the reaction to the smell of a dead animal or rotting garbage is universal. If we weren’t disgusted, “we might eat food that’s gone bad and then get sick from the bacteria that multiplies so rapidly on corpses” (page 39).

     The book ends with a comprehensive index, from “accidents” to “yeast,” and a page of photo credits. The narrative, however, finishes with an explanation of the death of the ruby-throated hummingbird that Thornhill introduced to readers at the beginning. Like all other pages in I Found a Dead Bird, the boxed text is accompanied by clear headings and carefully chosen, well-placed photographic illustrations. To learn more about Thornhill’s design and use of photographs, log on to her website (http://www.janthornhill.com/) and click on “Dead Bird Step-by-step.” You’ll also discover other wonderful books about the natural world that she has written and illustrated.

Highly Recommended.

Barbara McMillan is a professor of early and middle years science education in the Faculty of Education, the University of Manitoba.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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