The Bird in Me Flies
The Bird in Me Flies
When I grow up, I’m going to be an artist.
But I don’t say that out loud.
Because it isn’t a real job. Not something
you can be. Especially not if you’re a girl.
I know that’s what papa thinks.
The Bird in Me Flies, by Sara Lundberg, is the story of Swedish artist Berta Hansson. First published in 2017, the book won Sweden’s August Prize for the best children’s book of the year—a prize awarded since 1989 by the Swedish Publisher’s Association. Groundwood’s 2020 English translation was provided by B. J. Epstein. The book focusses primarily on Berta Hansson’s early life in Hammerdal. It conveys the story of young Berta’s dreams of being an artist and the fateful events that impacted her life, from her mother’s illness and subsequent death, to a pivotal experience of deliberately burning pea soup—the catalyst that changed her destiny.
The written text is poetic and sparse. Lundberg’s colourful illustrations were created using aquarelle (watercolours), gouache, and collage techniques. As the book begins, the reader’s attention is instantly drawn to the beautifully rendered illustrations that bring to life the events in the story. The illustrations, inspired by Hansson’s own paintings, convey the emotions she feels. This is achieved using various techniques, including the use of watercolours to create a hazy scene reflecting fond memories of watching her Uncle John paint for the first time. Elsewhere, Lundberg uses sharp, pencil-drawn figures as Hansson contemplates what things really look like after her teacher chastises her in front of the class. At first glance, the illustrations appear deceptively simple. However, there is a complexity to them involving the use of angles, lines, and colours to express a multitude of feelings, including defeat, sadness, resignation, and happiness. For instance, Berta is often depicted painted in cool colours with her head titled downward or her eyes downcast, conveying to the reader her inner sadness and feelings of isolation. In contrast, when Berta visits the doctor, who had convinced her father to let her go away, the use of bright, vibrant colours gives the reader a sense of the happiness that she feels.
The story makes for an ideal read-aloud. The sparse written text flows smoothly and poetically. The cadence of that text is such that it conjures evocative images ranging from depression to joy, confinement to freedom. The text is inspired by the diaries and letters of Berta Hansson. Sara Lundberg’s use of descriptive vocabulary facilitates the creation of vivid images, yet she leaves space for the reader to fill in details. For example, she writes, “Something must have broken inside her, because a little while later more blood comes. Dark red. Streaming. Unending.” Although not explicitly stated, the reader can deduce that Berta’s mother has taken a turn for the worse and that death is near.
Although the story is an enjoyable read and is chronologically sequential, it seems occasionally disjointed—jumping from event to event, moment to moment. This is a product of the spare text. After the death of her mother, Berta flees the house and encounters a moose. It is a somewhat magical moment but ends abruptly with the turn of a page to Berta’s sister’s return for the funeral.
A valuable addition at book’s end is a brief biography of Berta Hansson that expands on her life after she left the farm and became a famous painter. Sources of information and a suggestion for further reading provide direction for readers wishing to learn more about the artist. Black-and-white photographs of the artist and her family connect the reader to the real-life person behind the story. Reproductions of some of Hansson’s artwork reveal that Lundberg’s illustrative style imitates that of Hansson—paying homage to Sweden’s beloved artist. For readers with an interest in art, The Bird in Me Flies is a book especially worth reading.
Amanda Borton Capina is a doctoral student at the University of Manitoba. She also serves as vice-principal at a bilingual elementary school.
Dr. Gregory Bryan is a member of the Faculty of Education at the University of Manitoba. He specializes in children’s literature.