Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Bird Songs!

It’s finally spring (after a too-long winter where I live), and publishers have brought forth a number of picture books focused on birds. Each one of these books is wonderful in its own way, yet they’re all quite different. So there’s a real bonanza of choices for young fans of our feathered friends. Here’s a closer look at what’s out there:

Young readers are treated to a lilting rhyme that introduces them to some common backyard birds in Have You Heard the Nesting Bird? (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $16.99, ages 3-7). Author Rita Gray beautifully balances poetry and information as she details the thoughts of two young children as they enjoy a day of bird watching.
But the main story of this book revolves around the children’s curiosity about the robin’s nest they have noticed high in a tree. They wonder why the robin is so silent while the cardinal, chickadee, crow and other birds they have spotted are so noisy. Suddenly, there is a “tapping “ and “cracking,” a “breaking” and a “shaking,” a “ruffling” and a “shuffling,” and the children cry: “The baby birds are here!”

Gray’s text is perfectly matched by artist Kenard Pak’s illustrations, done in watercolor and digital media. Pak uses a palette that mixes delicate spring colors with earth tones, and he has fun playing with time, perspective, white space, and page turns. In one, mostly white two-page spread, for example, he shows a cardinal in mid-flight on one side, and a chickadee hanging upside down from a branch on the other. The way the birds are placed on the pages subtly underlines the sense of flight that pervades the illustrations in the book. And one gorgeous two-page spread of a nighttime scene, showing the robin in its nest as the children sleep in their house, provides a natural way to move the story forward to the birth of the baby robins. For readers looking to learn more, Gray provides a whimsical but fact-packed robin “interview” – “A Word With the Bird” – at the conclusion of her story. And there's even more to enjoy from these interviews with Gray and Pak.

Author/artist Jorey Hurley also has a robin theme in her debut picture book Nest (Simon & Schuster, $16.99, ages 3-6). But Hurley uses only 15 words – one for each two-page spread – to take readers through a year in the life of a robin family. As the book opens, we see a male and female robin perched on the edge of a nest in which there is a blue egg.

The word on the spread is, naturally, “nest.” Several pages later, there’s the word “hatch” as we see a baby robin emerging from the egg.  Further on, we see the baby “grow” as its fed in its nest in a just-blooming tree. And so on through the year until the book ends with the word with which it began – “nest” – as we see the now-grown baby robin making a nest with a mate. Hurley’s background as a textile designer shows in her clear, uncluttered but stylish illustrations, done in Photoshop. An author’s note at the end gives more information about robins that parents can share with their children, and readers can learn more about Hurley from this video.

Nests are front and center in Mama Built a Little Nest (Beach Lane Books/Simon & Schuster, $17.99, ages 4-8). Author Jennifer Ward packs a plethora of facts into her deceptively simple rhyming text. Ward provides a four-line poem on each two-page spread, and each poem begins in a similar way: “Mama built a little nest.”

Since each two-page spread features a different kind of bird, the way the nests are built varies; in one case (a male cactus wren), it’s “Daddy built a little nest,” and in another (falcon), it’s “Mama scraped a little nest.”
Along the way, young readers learn about the different ways that birds build their nests. Ward’s poems, printed on one page of a two-page spread, are paired with more facts, which are provided, in smaller print, on the other page. The illustrations are done by Caldecott Honor artist Steve Jenkins, the master of precise but beautifully rendered collage art.

 OK, Peggy’s a chicken – but she’s still a bird! And the story of her visit to the big city is bound to be a hit with kids, who will readily identify with Peggy’s efforts to find her way in the midst of a busy world filled with unexpected twists and turns, as well as creatures who are much larger than she is.

 In “Peggy: A Brave Chicken on a Big Adventure” (Clarion, $16.99, ages 3-7), author/artist Anna Walker combines uses a spare text and expressive watercolor illustrations to tell the story of an intrepid fowl. As this whimsical story opens, readers learn that Peggy lives on a quiet street and thrives on the routines of her daily life there, from eating her breakfast to watching the pigeons.. One day, however, a gust of wind literally sweeps Peggy into an urban landscape, filled with hurrying people and buildings that touch the sky.
Unruffled, Peggy plunges into the delights of big city life, as she “watched, hopped, jumped, twirled, and tasted,” discovering everything from cupcakes to high heels to escalators. It’s fun, but Peggy eventually misses home and, with a bit of help from her pigeon friends, she makes it safely back to her quiet street, where she revels once again in her everyday life.

Yet Peggy has been smitten by the delights of the metropolis and so, as Walker writes on the book’s final page, she “sometimes caught the train to the city.” “Peggy” is a delight from start to finish, a book that touches the heart – and the funny bone – and also is lovely to look at. Get a taste of Peggy's story with this book trailer.

Little readers can learn basic concepts while following the exploits of a cheerful little red bird in “Early Bird” (Feiwel & Friends, $15.99, ages 2-5). In her debut picture book, author/artist Toni Yuly offers readers illustrations featuring brilliant colors and simple shapes, as well as a story that has a surprising plot twist at the end.
Along the way, readers will learn concepts like “across,” “through” and “under,” yet Yuly’s text is never didactic. Overall, “Early Bird” shows that Yuly is an author/artist who understands the art of both educating and entertaining very young children.

 It’s pretty much impossible to describe “Aviary Wonders Inc.” (Clarion, $17.99, ages 9-12), written and illustrated by Kate Samworth. Despite its picture book format, the book is clearly meant for older readers as Samworth uses irony and advertising lingo to give an idea of what could happen to our flying friends if their natural habitats disappear. The book, which is meant to look like a catalog, is set in the year 2031 and, because so many birds have virtually vanished, the only way to enjoy their presence is to “build your own” by ordering various parts from the Aviary Wonders catalog.

Samworth’s dark humor will capture the interest of some readers, while others may find it disturbing. Still, there’s no denying that Samworth makes her point about the need to protect birds and their habitats in a unique way. But the real scene stealers are Samworth’s illustrations, lush with color and detail and done in oil, ink, graphite and colored pencil. You can get a sense of her work from this book trailer.

 Author/illustrator Edward Gibbs is on a roll with his I Spy books about animals, which include die cut-outs that allow young readers to guess which animal he’s writing about. The latest in the series is I Spy in the Sky (Templar/Candlewick Press, $14.99, ages 4-7), in which young readers can learn a bit about everything from eagles to peacocks. Gibb’s over-sized birds are fun to look at, and kids will enjoy this new twist on the classic game.

So, there you have a it! A plethora of new bird books to enjoy this spring.
And don't forget a couple of my all-time, older favorites: My Spring Robin by Anne Rockwell (now out of print, but worth searching for a paperback copy), and Birds, written by Caldecott Medalist Kevin Henkes and illustrated by his talented spouse, Laura Dronzek.

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