________________ CM . . . . Volume XVI Number 1 . . . . September 4, 2009



Zetta Elliott. Illustrated by Shadra Strickland.
New York, NY: Lee & Low Books, 2008.
48 pp., hardcover, $19.95 (US).
ISBN 978-1-60060-241-2.

Subject Headings:
Novels in verse.
Drug abuse-Fiction.
Family life-Fiction.
African Americans-Fiction.

Grades 3-7 / Ages 8-12.

Review by Val Nielsen.

**** /4


Mama and Papa named me Mehkai,
but Granddad calls me Bird
That's what he used to call me, anyway.
Granddad passed about a year ago.
Now that he's gone
his best friend, Sonny, looks out for me
I call him Uncle Son…
Uncle Son says he likes talking to me
‘cause I keep him on his toes.


Mekhai is a young African-American living in a big city environment. The past year has been hard for him as he has lost both his grandfather and his big brother Marcus. When Bird tells his granddad's friend that he wishes he could play the saxophone like Charlie Parker, Uncle Son tells Bird not to waste his time trying to be like the jazz musician. "You just remember" says Uncle Son, "everybody got their somethin'. And that includes you."

     The "something" that Bird has is his interest and talent in drawing. Bird draws every day, drawing all the things he sees in his neighborhood, like buses and trees and buildings and people. Mostly, though, he likes to draw birds. It was Bird's big brother Marcus who taught him to draw. Marcus used to take care of Bird, but anger and drugs drove him away from his family and his neighborhood. Since Marcus' death, Bird has only the book on birds that was his brother's parting gift.

     Bird is a sensitive and realistic story written in a free-form poetic style. The text is wonderfully spare, yet evocative of the range of emotions with which its young narrator deals. It is rare for an author to address problems of drugs and family life as Zetta Eliott does in her first picture book. Although some might say that Bird's obsession with art is "escaping," it is perhaps more accurate to say that his drawing helps him to make sense of the world around him.

     Shadra Strickland's mixed media illustrations depicting not only the characters and setting of the story, but also the young protagonist's drawings, are outstanding. This year, Bird won several awards for the talented artist, including the Jack Ezra Keats award and the Coretta King John Steptoe Award for New Talent. It is the first children's book for both writer and illustrator. All those who share books with young readers will hope that it is the first of many.

Highly Recommended.

Valerie Nielsen, a retired teacher-librarian, lives in Winnipeg, MB.

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

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Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364
Hosted by the University of Manitoba.