From School Library Journal
Grade 1–5—An urban African-American boy transcends the loss of loved ones with help from a caring elderly mentor and from the sustaining ability to create art. Bird looks back and remembers his once-admired older brother Marcus's slow descent into drug addiction, expulsion from the family home, and ultimate death—a death that ostensibly led to the decline and death of his beloved grandfather as well. Wise Uncle Son picks up where Granddad leaves off and becomes the steadying and inspiring influence in Bird's life as he learns not only the hard lesson that, "You can't fix a broken soul," but also to look to the future with confidence. Despite the plainspoken, accessible language, the author's flashback structure may not be as successful with this audience as a more linear story arc. The illustrations, rendered with a delicate touch in watercolor, gouache, charcoal, and pen, emphasize the textual theme of resilience in adversity, even while Marcus's appearances are often shrouded in a palette of grays. Bird's own pencil drawings of city life and the repetition of Marcus's symbolic bright cap add interest and meaning to the visual narrative. From a first-time author and illustrator comes a sad truth of contemporary life successfully leavened with hopeful optimism.—Kate McClelland, Perrot Memorial Library, Old Greenwich, CT
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In this beautiful picture book for older readers, Elliott and Strickland tell a moving story in spare free verse and clear mixed-media pictures of an African American boy who loves to draw. At first Bird’s mentor is his older brother, Marcus, a graffiti artist. Then Marcus becomes a junkie who is eventually kicked out of their home. Drug use among family members is a reality for some young people, but it is rare to find books for the age group that reflect that experience. Marcus’ need for “a fix” and his eventual death are both handled with subtlety: “Marcus never got better. After the funeral, Granddad went to bed.” Bird’s elderly friend, Uncle Son, keeps the young artist strong and tells him a story from slavery times of the people in chains who could fly when their spirits broke free. The spacious scenes of the boy beneath birds soaring high above the city streets echoes what Bird discovers: that art can inspire, comfort, and elevate. Pair this with Virginia Hamilton’s The People Could Fly (1985). Grades 2-5. --Hazel Rochman