The Day I Became a Bird: A Tender Illustrated Parable of Falling in Love and Learning to Unmask Our True Selves
Imaginative assurance that we are worthy of love just as we are.
By Maria Popova
In what remains the greatest definition of love, Tom Stoppard described the real thing as “knowledge of each other, not of the flesh but through the flesh, knowledge of self, the real him, the real her, in extremis, the mask slipped from the face.” And yet the grandest paradox of love — the source of its necessary frustration, the root of the inescapable lover’s sulk — is our insistence on crafting and putting on ever more elaborate masks under the mistaken belief that these idealized selves, presented to the object of our infatuation, would render us more desirable and worthier of love. We tuck our messy real selves behind polished veneers, orchestrate grand gestures, and perform various psychoemotional acrobatics driven by the illusion that love is something we must earn by what we do, rather than something that comes to us unbidden simply for who we are.
The deconditioning of that dangerous delusion is what French children’s book author Ingrid Chabbert and Spanish artist Guridi explore with imaginative subtlety in The Day I Became a Bird (public library).
The protagonist of this minimalist, maximally expressive story is a tenderhearted little boy who falls in love for the first time the day he starts school.
Because love always sneaks in through the backdoor of our awareness before it makes a home in the heart, not until a few pages into the book do we find out that the object of his affection is a classmate named Sylvia — a passionate bird enthusiast who seems to only have eyes for feathered creatures.
In order to gain her attention, the little boy decides to construct a costume, a sort of enormous mask that would transform him into a bird — a giant, trembling, clumsy bird incapable of flight, which is surely how one feels when faced with unrequited love. Still, enveloped by the shiny feathers, he feels handsome — he feels worthier of Sylvia’s attention and affection than in his own creaturely self.
The costume makes the daily duties of his school life even more awkward — other kids stare and snicker in the classroom, soccer is a struggle, tree-climbing a physical impossibility, and rain makes for a soggy nightmare.
And then, one afternoon, Sylvia notices him. They come face to face and their eyes meet — her eyes meet his, that is, and not the masks’s. For what is love if not the gift of being seen for who one is?
Sylvia steps closer to me and takes off my costume.
I don’t know what to do.
My heart is beating a hundred miles an hour.
In the sky, I see a flock of birds take flight.
Sylvia puts her arms around me.
I stand perfectly still. I can’t think.
Complement the immeasurably wonderful The Day I Became a Bird with The Lion and the Bird, a very different but equally tender and touching parable of relationships, and The Conference of Birds, an illustrated story of belonging based on an ancient Sufi poem.
Illustrations courtesy of Kids Can Press; photographs by Maria Popova
Published September 26, 2016