Feathers: Not Just for Flying

I am delighted to report that we have all made it back from South Carolina in one piece, and that apparently I know how to use the post scheduling thingamajig on WordPress.  (Also, my computer recognizes “thingamajig” as a word, but not “WordPress.”)  And now that we’re back I can tell you that yesterday the Changeling and I were on a farm, Old McCaskill’s, both of us nearly out of our minds with glee.  There were sheep (Dorset, if you’re like me and would want to know), chickens (Buff Orpingtons, again, the sort of thing I like to know), ducks, goats, horses, cats and dogs galore (including a Border Collie and two Great Pyrenees), and probably more I’m forgetting right now.  We were in hog heaven– oh, there were pigs, too.  Anyway, we nearly got our fill of animal company, by which I mean we agreed we wanted to go live on a farm and my husband nearly had to drag us out of there.  (He liked it, too, but didn’t want to end up with a farm in Cambridge, MA, I think).

Also, a baby duck had just hatched and Kathy, who runs the B&B and helps run the farm, let us hold her– well, my husband was too chicken, if you’ll forgive me the pun, but the Changeling and I did.  I was so proud of how gentle the Changeling was.  I took the new duckling first, feeling the prick of tiny feet, watching the bright little black eyes take in the world (it’s amazing that such a tiny, new bird really does take it all in), and stroking the soft, brand-new neck.  Then I taught the Changeling to lay her own small hands open almost flat together and take the tiny bird in her own only-just-not-a-baby-any-longer hands.  It really was a special moment.  It was both of our first time actually touching a bird, and, given our love of birds, having that first experience together was something to tuck away in my memory and cherish.

Unsurprisingly, by the time we were ready for bed that night the Changeling requested A Bird Is a Bird and we’d already read a new favourite in our house, Feathers: Not Just for Flying by Melissa Stewart, illustrated by Sarah Brannen.  (By the way, you’ll find good teaching materials at that link under “Downloadables.”)


You remember how we found Feathers, via the not-unaccustomed route of our children’s librarian and our children’s book shop?  Well, it’s proven popular: it hasn’t had the time A Bird Is a Bird has had to completely meld into our daily lives, but the Changeling has already mentally aligned the two, she loves Feathers, and, as the readers, we parents welcome the addition to our bird-oriented repertoire.  What I noticed, though, was that we felt a particular intimacy in reading these books after having held a bird in our own two hands.  I found they went from being pleasant, interesting, useful books I enjoyed with my daughter to being actually exciting.

I’ve already said that Feathers is excellent if you’re looking for a book to follow A Bird Is a Bird, but I can also tell you that it’s a beautiful book in its own right, particularly if you find yourself with a child who has just found out that her love of birds is really exciting when she’s touching a bird’s feathers with her bare hands.  The book’s style is finely balanced between an old-fashioned naturalist’s notebook (think of Stephen Maturin in Patrick O’Brian’s books, or, if you insist on reality, of John James Audubon) and a child’s scrapbook.  Each page has a broad description of a feather’s function in large type as a title: “Feathers can shade out the sun like an umbrella,” for example.  Then it gives the naturalist’s notes on a particular bird which uses that function: the tricolored heron (illustrated on the facing page in a large, beautifully detailed watercolour) lifts its wings to shade the water so it can find fish and frogs more easily.  Ah, like an umbrella?  The page adds little paper umbrellas, the kind you get in your drink or for favours at a child’s birthday party, to the scrapbook.  Wouldn’t a naturalist provide a closeup of the heron’s wings?  You get that, too.  A frog?  Wouldn’t a child giggle and add a picture of a frog?  You get that, too.  It’s all there, but all done with those gentle, precise, and lovely watercolours: both Sarah Brennan and Melissa Stewart took their job seriously.  Each page appeals to the child, but doesn’t talk down to anyone.  My toddler knew she was being talked to, not being talked at, and if you work with children at all you know that they can tell the difference.

As a parent reader, I loved the style.  I loved the vintage feel of the book (emphasized by the yellowed backgrounds, like old paper) and how each page is laid out differently, really like a scrapbook.  Some pages show clippings being “taped” in (Sarah Brennan is good at her job– have you ever tried to draw a page being taped to another page?), but others show a framed large-scale painting of a bird, for example.  There’s freshness whenever you turn the page, but it always has the feeling of flipping through something a bit old-fashioned… only with bright little details like a sunblock label (for how feathers can protect a bird’s skin from the sun), or seeds trailing out of a photo of a bird feeder across the page.  In other words, the layout is consistent in its vintage feel, it takes its job seriously, it takes the reader seriously, and yet, brilliantly, it doesn’t take itself too seriously.  I love a book with a sense of humour, as does my daughter, and this one does.

Altogether, the result for the reader is fun and beautiful, but also extremely useful.  Reading it for the first time with my two-and-a-half-year-old, I didn’t go into the full, rich detail this book provides: I read the headings, gave a brief summary of how it applied to the bird in the picture, and we looked at some of the pictures.  (Note that these facts were easily skimmed at a first reading; that’s evidence enough of good, clear writing!)  That was enough for her for the first, impatient reading.  On subsequent, more leisurely, readings, we’ve read each paragraph carefully and found a lot to talk about.  In other words, this is what I think of as an “elastic” book: it’s very malleable to the needs of the moment.  I love that adaptability, and what’s most exciting is that it’s obvious it suits a wide age range and should be useful for a good few years.

I want to end by saying a word about non-fiction books here.  I’m a fiction girl, and I always have been.  (Hey, when I had to think of a naturalist, my first thought was Stephen Maturin, not Audubon.)  I don’t remember loving many non-fiction books growing up.  But this bird adventure with my daughter is bright and exciting for me: I’m discovering so many fun, readable, and informative non-fiction books with her, which is enriching both of our lives a great deal, and Feathers is definitely one of the best.

I’m looking forward to getting outside with our book this spring and summer.  I want to look at birds and talk about what the feathers might be doing.  I think you might enjoy doing the same thing with your child.

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