Friday, March 27, 2009

Three Bird Books for Spring

It’s the quintessential image of spring: three blue eggs in a robin’s nest. And so I give you three books, each as surprising as a new egg. Two of them are recent arrivals, while the third is out of print. Each captures the poetry of birds in a way I think Emily Dickinson would have appreciated. Birds are fantastic metaphors, after all. Their eggs represent new life and their flight represents hope and freedom. Remember Dickinson’s poem? “Hope is the thing with feathers/That perches in the soul/And sings the tune without the words/And never stops at all....”

Birdsong by Audrey Wood and Robert Florczak

Birdsong is out of print, but it’s still a favorite of mine. Readers will travel around the United States for a day, bird watching with children in different states as they go. The text is simple: “Caw-caw-caw—swaying on telephone wires, jaunty crows banter at dawn. Missy and Deni awaken to birdsong.” A look at the key on the back cover tells us that these kids live in West Virginia, that the birds they hear are American crows, and that the flowers in the page border are Big rhododendron. Next it’s on to cardinals in Arizona and rock pigeons in New York. Fourteen birds later, evening falls with an owl calling in Michigan.

Robert Florczak’s illustrations are quietly appealing as well as accurate. In nearly every spread, one or two children play or hike or work while noticing the birds calling nearby.

Birdsong didn’t hit it big like the author’s book, The Napping House, but I loved sharing it with my students. We attempted to guess the states and flowers before peeking at the back of the book, and of course we tried out each birdsong. The songs are transcribed well, so they’re easy to imitate. This is unabashedly a concept book, with the slimmest imaginable narrative arc. But Birdsong shows young readers something new, a way of listening to the world. After you’ve read it, you’ll find yourself noticing birdsongs all around you. It turns out Earth has a soundtrack.

Birds by Kevin Henkes

Birds is the work of an amazingly talented author-illustrator, Kevin Henkes. He is well known for writing a number of picture books about mice as schoolchildren, including Owen and Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse. He then turned his hand to middle grade fiction with books like Olive’s Ocean, a 2004 Newbery Honor book. More recently, Henkes has been making picture books for a slightly younger crowd, say two- to five-year-olds instead of four- to seven-year-olds. He’s very good at that, too, winning the 2005 Caldecott for Kitten’s First Full Moon and rave reviews for Old Bear and A Good Day.

Birds is Henkes’s latest picture book, really an illustrated free verse poem. At first its narrator is unseen, but like Audrey Wood’s characters, she begins her day with birdsong. The child then tells us a series of seemingly random things about birds. She remarks on their colors and sizes before giving an anecdote, a what if, an even more fanciful what if, and so on. As the book progresses, metaphor becomes more and more important in a rising way that may remind you of a bird taking flight. Here’s one example partway through: “Sometimes in winter, a bird in a tree looks like one red leaf left over.”

Birds makes a deliberate, delicate transition from the factual to the metaphorical, the way a fine green vein travels through a spring leaf. I think maybe Henkes is saying that bird facts are great, but the free-winged beauty a bird brings to our world is even better. Whatever his message, his book gives me spring fever, a desire to run through the grass barefoot and, like his young narrator, sing into the sunshine.

How to Heal a Broken Wing by Bob Graham

I ordered this book because I’d read the author's “Let’s Get a Pup,” Said Kate! and liked it very much, especially the funny, friendly illustrations. Later I found out that How to Heal a Broken Wing had won the Charlotte Zolotow and Cybils awards for best picture book of 2008 and was an ALA Notable Children’s Book.

It is very difficult to write a tender book without being alarmingly sentimental, but Bob Graham knows the value of understatement. A little boy in a big city finds an injured pigeon on the way home with his working mother. He insists on rescuing the bird, and his parents help him care for it while it heals. Nothing special? Just listen to the first page: “High above the city, no one heard the soft thud of feathers against glass.” On the next page, we read simply, “No one saw the bird fall.” Graham's language is gently lovely, but his illustrations make How to Heal a Broken Wing soar. With simple lines and just a few colors, Graham paints a vast cityscape that dwarfs the bird and the child at the center of his tale. Yet he also uses smaller, graphic novel-style sequences to illustrate parts of the story. The author-illustrator has a knack for pacing his close-ups and wide-angle shots. The blue-tinged palette lends a slightly melancholy air to most of the narrative, then surprises by leading us to the top of the sky. And the same type of slightly comical characters Graham drew for “Let’s Get a Pup” read here as sublimely ordinary, led by our small hero, Everychild.

This book isn’t just about helping a hurt pigeon, it’s about keeping your eyes open in a world where too many people have their eyes closed. It is also about hope. As the author puts it, "A loose feather can't be put back...but a broken wing can sometimes heal." For some reason, How to Heal a Broken Wing reminds me of Shaun Tan’s The Arrival. I think it’s because both books give me a bone-deep feeling of being glad to be alive and human.

The crepe myrtles in my town are blooming pinkly and the birds are calling from dawn to dusk. Even in sunny California, the world changes when spring comes. Wherever you are, and however much your own neighborhood has bloomed, I suggest you celebrate with one of these picture books. If you're in the mood for more bird books, I also highly recommend First the Egg by Laura Vaccaro Seeger, An Egg Is Quiet by Dianna Hutts Aston and Sylvia Long, and an out-of-print folktale called The Language of Birds by Rafe Martin and Susan Gaber.


Candace Ryan said...

I can't stop hearing great things about HOW TO HEAL A BROKEN WING. I'm going to have to get my hands on a copy soon.

I also loved Shaun Tan's THE ARRIVAL and highly recommend one of his picture books, THE RED TREE, if you haven't yet read it.

From how you describe the Tan-esque feeling of HOW TO HEAL A BROKEN WING, I think you'd find THE RED TREE to be of kindred spirit.

Anonymous said...

Candace--I DO own The Red Tree! It's what made me want to read The Arrival! I find The Red Tree to be a uniquely beautiful and comforting book. Tan's latest is Tales from Outer Suburbia, a collection of illustrated short stories. Have you seen it? How to Heal a Broken Wing is less out there than Tan's stuff; it just inspired me the way The Arrival did. I'm interested to see what you think!

Candace Ryan said...

Kate, I have yet to take a look at Tan's latest, but it's on my list! I've read all of his other picture books, which I also highly recommend.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your inspirational post. Haven't heard of Tan. Sounds like a good one to try. Need to take another look at BIRDSONG. And I can't wait to see your other 2 books. Our neighborhood isn't very spring-like yet (Maine), but the birds are coming out. We've seen some robins and woodpeckers. The chickadees, doves, and bluejays are here all year.

Always on the look out for good books! Don't get in the picture book section as much anymore, but I love to see good ones.

Kate Coombs said...

Thanks for giving me a glimpse of the birds in Maine. The bird that's always around my place is my upstairs neighbor's African gray parrot, which she keeps on her balcony. The funny thing is, he's out there so much that he imitates the songbirds and actually sounds kind of pretty!