I am thrilled to share with you the latest book on our Bamboo Dart Press imprint. Mark Givens is an artist, writer, publisher and songwriter. I mention that because all of those talents meet up in this children’s parable that he has written and illustrated titled A Circle of Birds which is available today.
Graphically savvy and narratively astute, Givens delivers Terry Southern pathos for the picture book set. Brightly feathered and so, so dry.—David Carpenter, author of From Alex to Ursula (and then a few more)
Delightful drawings accompany a charming parable of privilege and class, ending on a note of defiant optimism. A relevant story for our times.—David Lester, artist and musician
Below is an interview I conducted with Givens
A Circle of Birds has had an odd journey. It was the first publication for your Pelekinesis imprint over ten years ago, correct?
When I approach a new project, I like to do a lot of research to help guide me in directions that make sense. Starting a publishing company in 2012 came with a whole slew of production questions: Is this the most economical method? what production technique will have the smallest carbon footprint? what kind of quality can be achieved with short-run processes? what distribution channels are open to small presses? what online resources are available? Most of these questions could be answered by searching the web but the questions about quality could really only be answered by producing some physical books.
So I put together a book I’d been working on, “A Circle of Birds,” and published it through LuLu. The quality and processes were reliable and stable, but it was very expensive. So I put together a book by my father, a collection of comic strips published in the Pomona Clarion newspaper from 1971 to 1972 called “Diary of a Mad House-Husband,” and published it through CreateSpace. It looked pretty good but the process was clunky and the lack of design control was too great. I used the publishing name “Pelekinesis” on both of these titles. These were valuable experiments that helped inform my decisions until, later in 2012, I published our first official Pelekinesis title, “Tales of a Minstrel” by Tala Bar.
So, yes, this story was published under the Pelekinesis imprint but it was part of my research and testing process and never had a chance to enjoy a proper book launch or its place in the sun. That time is now!
It is interesting to me that the story comes from a place of a single privileged bird’s relation to a bevy of working class birds (in our world, they are all working class folks, this is a parable!). This is a children’s story, and so often children books come from the voice of the singled out misfit that does not fit in with the crowd. Was this flip a conscious decision?
My writing, limited as it is, often addresses social and philosophical issues through animal personification. There was a story called “The Fishbowl” which I read on Bella’s radio show on KSPC, that explored the size of our perceived realities through the eyes of a fish. This story, “A Circle of Birds,” looks at social status and economic disparity through anthropomorphic birds. Sometimes it’s easier to think about these things when we remove ourselves from the equation. Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” Adams’ “Watership Down”… hell, AESOP, for god’s sake!
I wanted to think about the class system and the notion of hard work in relation to exploitation and social ladder-climbing. The idea that we can pull ourselves up through the social strata, the “rags-to-riches” fairy tale, is an attractive proposition that can be easily exploited, guilt-inducing, and harmful when unfulfilled.
We are told that, through hard work and persistence, we can achieve ANYTHING we dream. And if those dreams go unrealized we start to believe that we must have done something wrong, or didn’t try hard enough, or gave up. We blame ourselves for not achieving our “potential” or fulfilling our “destiny.”
The truth is that MANY contributing factors can influence the success or failure of an individual’s plans – economic conditions, social class, evolving passions, or just plain old bad ideas can certainly have an impact. How an individual reacts to those circumstances tells a pretty powerful story. I wanted this story to hint at the more famous hero’s journey while creating a distance between the two tales – the empty existence of the privileged birds and the more communal existence of the village birds – how the two realities co-exist with very little interaction.
I wanted “A Circle of Birds” to start in an empty space, above the downtrodden masses but secluded and vacant, where dim-witted privilege abounds. The physical elevation and sense of importance are self-imposed. The bluster, pomp, and isolation personified by the flapping birds, the lack of social understanding exemplified by naive business decisions, and the knowledge that this cycle will continue present very few questions – the answers being as vacuous as the surroundings.
There is nothing much redeeming about the main character. The little bird is a sympathetic buffoon, stumbling through life with privilege keeping the outside world at bay. The villagers have no reason to hide from their surroundings and see the world as it really is, grit and all.
In the end, the hard working villagers make their own lives better, while the rich birds continue their cycle of isolation, their elevated self-worth intact.
When you wrote this book your children were just of the age to read it themselves, maybe 5, 6 years old. Did they read it? I wonder what their thoughts were?
I read this story to them and they thought the birds were pretty cute. They didn’t like it when the birds started to get older and the feathers started to fall out. Other than that, they developed a deep understanding of classism and privilege, we discussed Marx and Young, and then they wanted more fruit snacks.
The book does not have an easy ending in that it does no go where I anticipated it would land upon my initial read. Was that ending cooked in before you started writing this piece?
I wanted the end of the story to sneak up on the reader. I didn’t want the reader to draw connections between the villagers’ successes and anything going on in the tower. I think it’s interesting that you took the story in one direction before the story snapped back in another direction. I hope that unexpected path didn’t let you down!
I did want to make it clear that the privileged birds would continue their self-perpetuating cycle of ignorance without regard for the villagers and that won’t change. They’ll continue to piddle away in their comfy little bubble, free from the dirty reality of the outside world, while the rest of the world presses on finding happiness and joy in things around them.
Like some of your better lyrics, this parable could be interpreted a couple of different ways. It didn’t strike me as vague or open ended until another reader got something altogether different out of this than I did. Are you surprised by this?
One refrain we often hear is that once the artist releases the work into the world it no longer belongs to the artist, that the viewer brings their own perspective into the equation so, naturally, the art will be interpreted in different ways.
I think there’s a lot of truth in that, especially with the kind of oblique backdrop we have painted. I enjoy experimenting with form and style and the sounds of words. There’s an audio version of “A Circle of Birds” that’s read by the wonderful Glenn Hascall so you can listen along if you want. I also like dropping in allusions that might carry some extra weight – easter eggs of a sort – or make the reader smile. But I also think that artists have the ability to create works that leave little room for interpretation. I like to leave room for whatever the reader might bring while trying my darndest to state the point clearly. I don’t care much how the reader gets there, I just hope we all arrive near the same place.