Welcome back to Wordless Wednesday, a fairly recent little series I am doing on the beautiful art of wordless books. If you missed my tips on how to read a wordless book, start there. But today I want to share a heartwarming, powerful, moving, thought-provoking book with you. It is a story of loneliness, friendship, bullies, restoration, and so many more things that it is shocking to believe they can be handled and wrapped up so beautifully book. I am also thrilled that the creator of the book took the time to answer my questions and I have that little interview too! Let’s look at Bluebird by Bob Staake.
The book beautifully begins from the cover with the little bluebird flying through the end pages, the title page, and onto the spread above where it takes interest in the small boy of the story. It is an incredible opening to the book, something I don’t think I have ever seen before, where every single page contributes to the arc of the story.
The bluebird watches the boy in school and observes his loneliness and the way other kids poorly treat him. On the way home from school, the boy notices the bluebird following him. Through a fun sequence of moments, the two become friends and enjoy making their way through the park. That is, until they reach a dark tunnel and are greeted on the other side by some of the unkind boys at his school.
There is a nasty scuffle, possible victory, and then disaster strikes as one of the boys inadvertently strikes the bluebird with a stick. The bird is down and the shock causes the bullies to run away. The boy cries and gently holds his little friend until more colorful birds join him in a beautiful, surprising conclusion where the bluebird is set free to fly into the clouds.
Whew! That is a terribly condensed, brusquely worded description of a story that unfolds so perfectly in many panels and wordless spreads. When I first read this book, I found myself mildly shocked at how light and airy the cover feels compared to the depth and intensity of the story. I am impressed with how carefully and masterfully Staake molded the story and handled several touchy subjects for picture books.
I also continue to find the ending to be slightly confusing and yet intriguing because of that. Every read I find myself pondering what really happens to the bluebird. I actually like that about the book. When I think about the kind of things a typical kid goes through every day and how mildly terrifying everything is and how very little concrete answers there are to anything—a story like this makes perfect sense. There is something beautiful about an open ending and it leaves much to the imagination and contemplation.
My very tiny sidenote to the whole book is how much I adore that it is set in New York. So many little background details peek out in every reading and I love searching and feeling connected to them. It isn’t important to know Manhattan to appreciate the story, but it is an added bonus of delight. And if you know the backstory of how Bob Staake was walking through Central Park, observed a bluebird seeming to follow him, and that sparked the idea for the book; it makes the setting of the book even more special.
But let’s get down to it and unfold why I think this wordless book works so well.
First, my standard simple plot translated into deep pictures theory completely explodes for this book. The plot is not simple in the least, and yet, Staake is able to strip it down to the most important and heaviest emotions and illustrate them in a way that is beautiful to view and easy to follow.
Second, the pacing would be entirely overwhelming for the full arc of this story; but panels, movement, and zooming are used masterfully to carry the story at a brisk but wholly comprehensible and enjoyable pace. I actually love that the combination of Staake’s illustration style and the heavy paneling feel almost graphic novel in format as it gives the reader complete authority in how to pace the reading. It works because the reader is delicately guided through the action with varying steps between panels and occasional close-ups on important pieces of information.
Third, the illustration style is absurdly perfect. If I were to consider sharing a story about a traumatic experience of bullying and possible death, I don’t think I would choose geometric figures to illustrate. But Staake took two very intense subjects and balanced them out with his signature illustration style which adds humor and space. I am seriously awed to see the range of emotion the characters are able to emote in their very basic shapes.
Lastly, the touch of whimsy added with the illustration style is perfectly cloaked in a subdued, serious palette of blues and grays. The quick movement and actions are more digestible with the stripped down colors. It is always much easier and more artistic to view an intense moment in black and white than realistic full color. But, the ending also brings in the gorgeous spectrum of other birds and an increasing amount of white and space to aid in releasing the heaviness of the subject and the intensity of the story. While the ending may be open to interpretation, it still feels conclusive.
And now, I am honored to share some insights to the book and to reading wordless books with a Q&A with Bob Staake himself. This man seems to be a whirlwind of activity and creative output, so I am thrilled to have captured a little of his time. Please welcome Bob Staake!