December 08, 2023

Once, a Bird

Written by Rina Singh
Illustrated by Nathalie Dion
Orca Book Publishers
32 pp.
Ages 3-6
September 2023 
I know many people are trying to forget a time of lockdowns and restricted movements during the early years of the pandemic. But Rina Singh and Nathalie Dion's story reminds us of the gifts of nature and community that were revealed during those tenuous times. And though their story takes us out of those times, it never lets us forget what discoveries were made when tensions were high, isolation was the norm, and health was insecure.
From Once, a Bird, written by Rina Singh, illustrated by Nathalie Dion
Without words, Rina Singh tells a story of the arrival of a robin to a land of complexity and quiet. There may be snow on the ground but as the bird travels over parks, highways, and agricultural fields, there is no one to be seen. It is people-less and still. It could be a dystopian landscape, but Nathalie Dion gives us hope and light in the greenness of the fields, the blues of the skies and the unscathed infrastructure.
From Once, a Bird, written by Rina Singh, illustrated by Nathalie Dion
The bird finds its way to a budding tree outside a walk-up apartment building where an elderly woman spots it. She alone is looking out her windows as her neighbours keep their blinds and curtains closed. But then others take in the sight of the robin, each in their own way. Whether it be a grandson and grandfather watching it with binoculars, or a young person taking photos with her phone, or two children chatting between windows. Even a new puppy dog is held up to witness the bird.
As life goes on for the bird, building its nest, laying its eggs, and feeding its young, the neighbourhood begins to open up: a door, a window, a walk with the dog. And, with time, the neighbourhood returns to normal as the bird and its young fly off, having taken the people through the tough times.
From Once, a Bird, written by Rina Singh, illustrated by Nathalie Dion
Although the audience for Once, a Bird is listed as 3-5 years of age, the depth of the storytelling is far greater, and could be for all ages. Rina Singh has given a nuanced story of isolation and connection with nature that may have been born of a pandemic, and all who have been living with solitude and/or withdrawal, whether because of distance, mental health, or even personality, will also understand. She offers hope that separation does not mean desolation, and that opening oneself to the natural world can help sustain us.

I've reviewed a number of picture books illustrated by Montreal's Nathalie Dion (e.g., The Big Bad Wolf in My House, I Found Hope in a Cherry Tree, The Dog's Gardener) and her watercolour and gouache art lends itself well to contemplative stories such as Once, a Bird. There is an intangible, almost divine, sense of beauty that comes from both introspection and deep relationships depicted in her illustrations. Her art is sensitive to the ephemeral nature of challenges, keeping her colours subdued but calm, and introducing brighter colours, initially only on the robin, as the people emerge, and the neighbourhood returns to life.
For hope through difficult times, take note of how once a bird brought a community together, and how Rina Singh and Nathalie Dion were able to do the same to tell its and our story.
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A French-language edition is also available as Il était une fois un oiseau.


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