Today we read Bird Child by Canadian teacher, parent and writer Nan Forler. I came across this book at the public library and was thrilled to discover that it also touched on the active role of the bystander in the bully/bullied/bystander dynamic. We have been talking about this topic a lot using powerful literature to inspire our discussion.
Eliza is a tiny girl – skin and bones with hair as black as a raven. She was raised in a very special way – she was taught to fly. Wow! There were hands in the air instantly.”Is this true?” “Really?” When I asked the students what they thought, I got some very interesting answers:
Alyson: “It said her hair was black like a raven so maybe she got that skill from birds.”
Kevin: “Maybe she can fly because her bones are hollow.”
Hajhare: “Maybe she can turn back and forth between a bird and an animal like Eagle Boy.” (We have been reading a lot of Aboriginal literature lately with this theme)
I suggested that maybe the author was implying that she could fly in her mind. “Oh like visualizing,” said Kevin. “Yeah, she means it like an expression,” Ricky agreed. As we read further, we hear the words that Eliza’s mother always tells her, “Look down and see what is. Now, look up and see what can be.” Thoughtful words to always encourage Eliza to focus on possibility and with a positive perspective, to take an active role in changing situations to make them better.
A new girl, Lainey, starts school and rides the bus each day with Eliza. Lainey quickly becomes the target of teasing and exclusion. My students explored reasons that she might be bullied: Were others jealous of her beautiful drawings? Her hair?Are they making fun of her because she is new? Because of what she wears? Why are they so mean?
Soon the teasing escalates to stealing Lainey’s hat and burying it in the snow. A boy smushes snow into her face “wiping away what was left of the smile she’d had on her first day of school.” Silence in my classroom. Silence in the story. “Eliza said nothing. She stood like a statue her boots sinking deeper and deeper into the snow, her voice dry as a mouthful of wool. and watched it happen.” Such a heavy emotional scene. Illustrator Francois Thisdale makes the mood even more sad and somber with the smirking children laughing at Lainey, frozen Eliza in the background and Lainey with her eyes squished shut all alone in the wintery schoolyard with the barren trees and a pink skyline behind. There was a little bit more silence in my class and then the “Oh! Oh! Oh!’s and the waving hands started. We had things to say about this.
Jena: “Eliza is like a bystander and kind of like bullying her too. If she doesn’t tell, the bullying won’t stop. It’s like the Juice Box Bully.”
Alyson: “Eliza should stand up for Lainey.”
Lisa: “Eliza might be worried – that people would think she was a tattler.”
Miami: “This is like something that happened to me. My Grandma fell and people just walked by her. Nobody helped. Two men were sitting on a bench and they just kept sitting. I felt so bad.”
Children see everything we do and everything we don’t do. Sometimes it is not so much our actions but when we fail to act that haunts us. Eliza felt shame. She told her Mom everything and her Mom listened. “It sounds like Lainey needs someone to help her fly.” Eliza knew what she had to do. Alyson commented thoughtfully, “Maybe flying means helping her get through it.”
The next time Lainey is bullied, Eliza acts. She “reached down inside herself and found her wings” When she shouts at a boy to return Lainey’s hat, other children join in “Yeah give it back.” The bullies’ power bubble is popped and they walk away.
Scott: “She’s taking care of Lainey now.”
Miami: “You know what I think? I think she couldn’t stand watching her be bullied anymore so she just yelled.”
Jena: “Maybe Eliza did that thing – you know, putting herself in her shoes?”
Lisa: “It’s like the Juice Box Bully – maybe they will have a rule, that everyone needs to help others.”
Alyson: “Oh I know! It’s like a chain reaction – helping it to stop, standing up.”
Kevin: “It’s like that dance we saw on the movie at Pink Day (referring to the flash mob anti bullying video)
In the end, Eliza and Lainey play together building a snow castle to the sky. I ask: Why do you think this book was witten?
Ricky: “It’s a lesson to stand up for each other!”
Alyson: “Don’t be a bystander! Just stand up!”
Emilio: “Probably they made this book so people won’t copy other bullies and be mean.”
Bird Child: so much beautiful writing and visually, it is absolutely gorgeous. This book should have a special place on the shelf in every school library and should be read and discussed with students again and again. There are not enough picture books that so thoughtfully explore the active role of the bystander in changing the way a bully might act and the way a peer is treated.