What Can a Small Bird Be? (North Carolina)

In December 2010, Peg Gignoux met with representatives of the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction and the North Carolina Museum of Art. I was at home recovering from a knee operation.

“Don’t freak out,” Peg said when she called me to tell me that we’d been commissioned to write a book:

  • For K-8 Students
  • That Must Include 8 Character Education Traits
  • That Must Be Composed by 8 Teams of Teens Spread Throughout North Carolina
  • That Must Be Finished (Both Art and Writing) in Six Weeks
  • That Had to Be Printed by June, or the Funding Would Evaporate

Peg came to refer to this as “jumping out of a plane naked without parachutes.” I called it “mission impossible,”…and yet, it was one of the most remarkable experiences, projects, and products you can imagine.

How Did We Do It?

  • We Came Up With a Structure of a Small Bird Who Would Travel the World Discovering Character Education Qualities.
  • We Assigned Each Task to a Different Team—i.e., Team Integrity, Team Perseverance, Team Respect, Etc. Each Was Responsible for Studying Children’s Books and Composing an Allegorical Expression of Their Assigned Character Trait “without Using the Word, or Any Synonyms.”

We were locked in the basement of the NC Museum of Art for 21 glorious hours, where we ate delicious food, edited the story through 20 drafts, and composed art for 32 pages of the illustrated books.

In the end, What Can a Small Bird Be? was written by eight teams of writing-illustrating students from all over the state of North Carolina and was distributed to every elementary and middle school in the state.

What Can a Small Bird Be?


There was once a curious bird who wondered, What can a small bird be? He flapped his wings and caught a soft breeze through a forest until he came to the edge of a riverbank to see what he could learn.

On the riverbank stood an ancient tortoise wearing an enormous golden straw hat. The tortoise, hunched in his shell, poked his head out to take timid looks at the river. “For years I’ve wanted to get to the other side.”

“Why don’t you use that beautiful hat of yours as a raft?” Bird asked.

“I’m too slow, and the currents are too fast. What if I tip over or fall out?”

“Then you can swim.” Bird untied Tortoise’s hat and held it in the water. Ever so carefully Tortoise placed one short, stubby leg inside, but when he lifted the other, a cackling of crows startled him.

“You foolish old tortoise!” cawed one.

“You can’t swim,” sneered another. The third just laughed.

Tortoise’s voice trembled. “I c-c-can’t do it.”

Bird pointed. “There are sweet wildflowers and a welcoming sun over there. Don’t let those bullies stop you.”

“I won’t,” said Tortoise. “Not this time.” Without hesitation he climbed into the hat and pushed off.

As Tortoise neared the opposite bank, a terrible whirlpool snatched the hat from beneath him. Tortoise flailed his legs and surfaced with a mouth full of water.

“Swim, Tortoise! You can do it!” Bird called as he rushed to rescue Tortoise’s hat.

When Tortoise looked at the bank, he realized it was getting closer. He cut across the currents until he felt sand between his claws.

Bird greeted Tortoise as he came ashore. “You were so brave! I knew you could do it!”

“I sure showed those crows, didn’t I?” Tortoise chuckled.

“And you showed yourself, too.” Bird winked and placed the hat back on Tortoise’s shell.

Good Judgment

Flying above the winding river, Bird saw it slow to a stream, thin to a trickle until, at last, it vanished into a land of drought.

From the middle of a worried flock of owls, he heard a mournful cry from Hooley, their leader.

“The sun took our river away, and we won’t survive the summer without it.”

“What could bring the river back?” asked Bird.

“The magic moonstone from High Mountain has the power to fill the riverbed.”

“You have wings. Why don’t you go get it?” Bird asked.

“We’re too weak and thirsty to fly that high,” Hooley said. “Could you get it for us?”

Bird thought of his own parched throat and tired wings. Then he heard a nest of owlets panting for water. Bird knew what he needed to do. He took a deep breath, stretched his weary wings, and with one flap…two flaps…three flaps…he was off!

But then he wondered, What would a good bird do? Bird remembered the crying owlets and his decision was clear. He glided down from the mountain, past the flock, and into the dry gully. He dropped the shrinking moonstone, and crystal water filled the empty riverbed.

“Thank you, Bird!” hooted Hooley, “You saved us all.”


The next morning the small explorer blew into a distant land of soft dunes. In the quiet, Bird heard the shifting grains of sand. Then a rattling sound echoed in the sandy hills.
What is that wonderful noise? He wondered. He followed the chicka-chicka-chicka and crashed right into a sunbathing snake.

Bird hopped backward. “Sorry, Mr. Snake.”

“The name’s Rukus. And please be a little more careful.” Rukus slithered away.
Bird spotted a strange object half-buried in the sand. He picked it up, shook it, and realized it was the sound he yearned for. Shaking, shimmying, and shuffling, Bird pictured himself with his bird buddies. He’d be the envy of them all.

Rukus slid into view, calling frantically, “Mr. Bird! Mr. Bird! Have you seen my rattle?”

Bird said to himself, This rattle sounds so wonderful, but it’s not mine. It belongs to Rukus.

What should a small bird do?

With one last shake, he handed it over.

Rukus, overjoyed, laughed and danced and rattled with Bird until they both fell asleep in the velvety dunes.


Tired from the long night of noisy dancing, Bird hitched a ride on a low cloud to a green prairie.

Meandering through the sea of grass, Bird came upon a lonely willow.

As the sky faded from blue to pink to gray, Walter the Willow began to cry.

Bird dived into his branches and asked, “Why are you so sad?”

Walter whispered, “I’m scared of the dark, and nighttime is getting closer and closer!” His branches began to shiver.

Bird wondered, What can a small bird do? Then the little yellow traveler remembered a family of fireflies looking for a place to call their own. “I’ll be right back.”

Bird sped to the fireflies and called out, “I’ve found the perfect home for you. Follow me!”

Bird darted between the grasses and swooped through twilight sounds to lead the wandering family back across the darkening plain.

The fireflies promised to be Walter’s night light. In return, he offered them a home in his sheltering branches.
Bird smiled as the willow glowed through the night.


An early morning updraft carried the little bird to a jungle. He dipped down and found a young giraffe tangled in vines. Bird asked, “Can I help you?”

“I’m stuck!” Giraffe yelled. “And I’m trying to find my way back to my family.”

“Don’t give up. I’ll help you get out!” Bird showed Giraffe how to lift one hoof and then the next.

Giraffe twisted and turned, pushed and pulled through one rambling vine after another.

“This is too hard,” Giraffe whined. “I quit!”

Oh dear, worried Bird, what should a small bird say?

“You have to keep trying, Giraffe. I know you can do it!”

Giraffe took a deep breath and then climbed and crawled until he finally came to the edge of the thick, dark jungle. Before him, the early morning stars filled the sky.

“Home! Thanks, Bird,” he called as he galloped off to join his family. The stars began to fade as the sun slowly crept over the savanna. Bird took off into the dawn.


Bird sailed over churning seas until he came to a rocky field. He swooped down and saw Elk, Squirrel and Sheep.

“Sheep, where is my milk?” he heard Elk say. “Squirrel, you did not bring me clover today.

I’m hungry.” Sheep and Squirrel hung their heads.

Bird floated down to ask, “How is everybody this morning?”

“We have to get breakfast for Elk,” said Sheep and Squirrel, slowly trudging away. Bird frowned.

“My they look awfully tired,” said Bird to Elk after they left.

“Too bad! It’s their job to bring me my breakfast.”

“Is it ever your turn to get food for them?” asked Bird.

“No, I’m the biggest. They have to get breakfast for me.”

“But squirrels and sheep like breakfast, too,” offered Bird.
Elk snorted.

The next morning, Squirrel and Sheep decided not to bring Elk his milk and clover. Elk became hungry and then angry. Bird coasted down to chat with him and wondered, What could a small bird share?

“Maybe if you show Sheep and Squirrel that you appreciate them, they might not mind bringing you breakfast,” said Bird.

“Hmmm,” said Elk and turned to Sheep. “I will get you some of those tasty buttercups from the meadow.” Sheep smiled. After Elk returned with the buttercups, he rammed into Squirrel’s favorite nut tree. As the nuts showered down, Squirrel laughed merrily. Together the three friends enjoyed a fine feast.


Hovering above a rainforest canopy the next day, Bird heard a stern voice. “I have to go hunting for our dinner now, so stay away from the village. It’s a dangerous place for tigers!”

Bird, perched on a branch, saw two rambunctious tiger cubs leaping and wrestling at their mother’s feet. Nipping them gently, she growled, “Are you listening?”

“Yes, ma’am,” the squeaked as their mother slipped quietly into the forest.
Bird chuckled, settled his wings, and took a short bird nap.

His eyes popped open. He watched the cubs leap and pounce as they practiced their fiercest tiger noises. Bird flapped his wings and kept his eyes on the cubs as they twisted their way in and out of the trees.
And then….TWACK!

Bird somersaulted backward through the air and landed with a thud. Looking up, he saw a large sign. (No Tigers)

The cubs had come too far! The village was in sight! What should a small bird do?
Bird thought quickly, “Hey, cubs, follow me! We’ll conga our way back to your momma.”
Laughing as they danced, Bird delivered them safely home.


The following afternoon, a fierce gust swept Bird into a mean squall. Up and down, back and forth, around and about, Bird tumbled.

At last, he was dropped onto a soft bed of fluffy clouds hidden inside the storm. He wasn’t alone. Dotted over downy hills were sleepers, lost and content in this land of dreams. Bird longed to join them.

Eyes drooping, he found himself drifting off to sleep.

“No!” he cried. “There are still more adventures to find!” With great effort, he shook off the heavy blanket of sleep and gave his wings one mighty beat. Eyes and beak tightly clenched, he fought through the raging winds and soared into the open sky.

The bright afternoon sun warmed Bird’s wings, and he wondered, What else can a small bird be?

A collaborative story written and illustrated by the Character Education Teen Residency Project
Participants with Writer Susie Wilde and Artist Marguerite Jay Gignoux
North Carolina Department of Public Instruction
North Carolina Museum of Art