Dear Reader, do you ever get the feeling that you couldn’t recognize a hint from the universe even if it sent all the birds of the worlds to crap it straight onto your head?
First thing this morning the Changeling reminded me of my promise to take her to the museum today: “To see the snowy owl!” I wrangled her into her clothes (the owl dress) and tried to think about a book to write about when we got back home. After the museum (she begged for a sheet of bird stickers at the shop) we met her daddy for a snack at the lab: “And I saw the cardinal and the puffins and Great! Blue! Heron! It eats fish!” (And what was I going to write about?) As an extra treat, the Changeling and I went to paint pottery! She wanted to paint an owl. (But what to write about?) At home from our packed day, we had a nice supper, then story and bedtime. The Changeling wanted A Bird Is a Bird, and as we snuggled before bed she listed all the birds she’d seen that day: owls, cardinals, tanagers, buntings (she asked me to sing “Bye, baby bunting”), herons, pelicans, puffins…
I left her room, slumped in a chair, and my husband rubbed my shoulder. “I just can’t settle on a book to write about today, for some reason,” I complained. “Write about A Bird Is a Bird,” he said promptly.
Birds have really become part of the fabric of our days, and have been for so long at this point that it’s small wonder I didn’t really think of A Bird Is a Bird, text and illustrations by Lizzy Rockwell, in the same way that I don’t often think about my dearly beloved bathtub. Let’s see: I knew this was a book as essential to the Changeling as The Joy of Cooking is to my kitchen from the first moment the Changeling jubilantly snatched it straight from the hands of our brilliant children’s librarian (God bless all children’s librarians) who was saying, “Oh, if she likes birds…” It just fit. I’d bought our own copy before the book was due back to the library. That was nearly a year ago (the Changeling wasn’t yet two years old), and it’s been rare that a week has gone by since then when we haven’t read this book at least once.
The same question comes to mind with this one as with Mr. Postmouse’s Rounds: is this a natural history book, and, if so, what makes this different from all other natural history books? In this case, the clear answer is, yes, it’s a natural history book. It doesn’t have a fictional narrative arc; its purpose is evidently to educate the young reader about birds; it’s plain, straightforward natural history. There’s no whimsy here, not even a hint of the fantastic. What distinguishes it from others is the more interesting question.
In this case, I think it’s a rather subtle point: the sheer, quiet pleasure the book takes in talking to you. This book could have been written for my Changeling. She’s a quiet, passionate sort, and takes her interests very seriously. A Bird Is a Bird loves birds, and really, really wants to tell you about them in a careful, logical and very precise way. The Changeling likewise loves birds, and sits (wriggles?) as a disciple to receive the book’s teachings. We start with a general framework (“A bird may be tall. A bird may be small.” p.5.), and build to more specific points: birds have beaks, wings, and start out in eggs. But then what about the platypus, or flies, or snakes? What is it that’s truly specific to birds? Feathers! (Bounce! goes the disciple.) As I said, there’s no fictional narrative arc to carry you through this book, but the arc is there, nonetheless, and it builds slowly and steadily to its logical climax: Feathers! It’s remarkably clear, satisfying, and, the word I keep coming back to, precise. This is a book which will teach you that delightful feeling of satisfaction in fact-based research. If you like building blocks of discovery, and think it can be beautiful, this is the book for you and your child.
The logic and precision are exactly why this book has lasted so well: even a year ago, the Changeling was able to keep up with the limited prose, and the exquisite, clear illustrations (Audubon, eat your heart out!). These past few months she’s been able to see the link between the birds she sees at the museum and the birds she sees in the book. In fact, she associates the two so strongly that she asked why they didn’t have A Bird Is a Bird at the gift shop (excellent question, oh Harvard Museum of Natural History!). I expect that in another year, if she remains interested in birds, she’ll be able to pick up on some more complex details, perhaps the differences between males and females, since she was already pretty excited to see “Mr. and Mrs. Mallard” in here. I don’t see this being a book for a particularly limited range of ages. The publisher recommends it for ages 3-7. Well, as we’ve seen you can go younger (we started reading it at 18 months, for the record). I’m no expert at the older range there, but I’d say 7 sounds about the upper limit I’d expect. (Caveat: I’m terrible at thinking about age limits for books. Maybe I’ll write more about that another time.)
There’s one more thing I want to emphasize here: I’ve come back a few times to dwelling on how lovely this book is, and how serious it is. I’ve seen a number of natural history books out there for children which either have illustrations which could belong in Nature, Science, Cell, or Scientific American. They’re, well, scientific. Often they’re photographs or photo-realism. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, of course– it’s science! The books are often excellent and the illustrations suit them perfectly. But I can’t say they speak to me, and the Changeling doesn’t seem to find them so stimulating either. Others, often pitched towards younger children, have cartoon-like pictures. They’re also fine, even if they aren’t particularly precise. They can be very cute. They don’t do much for me, either, and none have had staying power with the Changeling. This one, though, is simply beautiful. The illustrations are lovely, accurate, and take the reader seriously. The reader, here represented by the Changeling, responds by taking the book and the subject seriously. I plead, falling on my knees, for more children’s science or natural science books to take both the subject and the audience seriously, and to try to convey the natural beauty of the topic with both sensitivity and accuracy. In short: why the hell can’t more science books be pretty to look at, dammit?