Karl James Mountford’s The Circles in the Sky

h1 August 17th, 2022 by jules

“Neither creature spoke for a little while;
they just sat in the quiet with the bird.”

(Click spread to enlarge)


It is striking to me how Karl James Mountford addresses death in The Circles in the Sky (Candlewick Studio), coming to shelves next month. To be sure, there are plenty of picture books out there that address the topic, but Mountford does it in a way that pays tremendous respect to child readers.

Fox tries to sleep but the “big circle in the sky” distracts him. He also cannot settle because of the loud chorus of birds near his den. They are singing a “strange morning song,” so Fox follows the birds. He ends up in a place in the forest he hasn’t seen before. And there, “in the clearing, was something small, something still … perhaps forgotten.”

Readers will recognize it as a dead bird. But Fox doesn’t undertand this. He tries to startle the “broken bird.” Nothing works. Moth is nearby, watching. Moth strikes up a conversation with Fox, all in an attempt to explain why Bird won’t move. Bird isn’t here anymore, says Moth. Fox protests: There is very much a bird-shaped creature on the ground. Yes, he’s here, but “sometimes there can be a different kind of here. Bird’s not here anymore in the way you and I are.” Readers are witnessing the same kind of conversation many adult humans try to have with children about death. Fox is utterly confused, and they sit in silence instead.

After Fox spins a metaphorical description of the bird’s death — even after the sun goes down, her light is reflected on the moon (“So even if the moon can’t see or be with the sun, he never forgets that she was once here”) — Fox becomes even more confused. The sun rises every morning, after all, so this means Bird will be back tomorrow. Right? Moth’s negative response is followed by a moment of rage, all caps and everything: “YOU’RE STILL NOT MAKING SENSE,” howls Fox.

Moth’s next response gets to the unadulterated truth: “Bird is dead.” This is after adding that the story about the sun and the moon was an attempt to be kind: “Sad things are hard to hear. They are pretty hard to say, too. They should be told in little pieces.”

I mean, WOW. Right?

Even better, after Fox is given the hard and scientific truth, the figurative truth (the story about the sun’s light) starts to make a bit of sense to him. (Take note, adult humans.)

If what I’ve described here still isn’t enough for you to pick up a copy of this contemporary folktale of sorts next month, the illustrations surely will be. Mountford’s highly stylized artwork uses angular lines and the circles promised in the title to bring this forest to life. (Just look at the linework on the cover alone!) The palette sparkles with earth tones and subtle jewel-colored ones. One spread conveys the bones of creatures under the ground — including dinosaur skeletons and those of two humans whose hands are linked (Mountford is so totally ready to talk about death, huh?), a world invisble to Fox who sits above it, wondering why Bird will not move. There is such movement and energy and momentum in the forest, captured in Mountford’s exquisite illustrations, coupled with decay, stillness, creatures long gone. This story contains multitudes.

Here is another spread below. I wish I had even more to show you, but be sure to find a copy of this one yourself next month.


“They strolled through the cut-down woodlands that had space for something new to grow. Past the forgotten house, that was probably really loved once. And across the calmriver that made soothing sounds.”
(Click spread to enlarge)


(Click cover to enlarge)


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THE CIRCLES IN THE SKY. Copyright © 2022 by Karl James Mountford. Illustrations reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Studio, an imprint of Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

One comment to “Karl James Mountford’s The Circles in the Sky

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