For as long as I can remember their presence is one of several signs spring will be here soon. First you occasionally see one or two, then you might see an entire flock covering a lawn as they migrate to their home territories. The once cold, silent sunrises are now filled with a new song.
There is an old practice for bringing good luck when you see the first one of a new season. Upon sighting one, lick the thumb of your right hand and then place it in the palm of your left hand. You next make a fist with your right hand and stamp it on top of the thumb print on your left palm. When you make a wish as you do this, it will come true.
According to this old tradition American robins, the state bird of three states, Connecticut, Michigan and Wisconsin, are like winged, four-leaf clovers. When visiting a book store recently I knew I had to have Robins! How They Grow Up (Clarion Books, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, February 7, 2017) written and illustrated by Eileen Christelow. You may think you know everything there is to know about robins but this book offers you much more.
WHO ARE WE?
Our black and white speckles mean we're young---a few months old.
Why are we living in your yard?
Well, here's the story.
With that short introduction our two robin narrators begin a tale of truth on how they came to be talking to us. It all starts in the spring when millions of male robins come north first. It's not an easy trip avoiding treacherous weather and predator birds. These male robins look for a secure area with plenty of food and water. Then they defend their space and wait.
After weeks the female robins travel to all the places selected by the males. Amid all the singing partnerships are formed. Females look for the safest sheltered place to build a nest. Like a potter molding clay they use bits and pieces of grass, twigs, leaves and mud as glue. You can find these natural bowls just about any place they believe is protected.
Once the eggs, three or four, are setting in the nest the female keeps them warm with her body. Did you know she turns the eggs to regulate the temperature? Have you ever heard of a brood patch? When these two teenage robins' mom leaves one time, a sneaky squirrel gets one of the eggs. It takes two weeks for the remaining eggs to reveal their contents.
At two day increments we learn how the babies eat, how their feathers grow and even how they deposit their waste. When they first leave the nest at two weeks, it's seriously frightening. At this point the learning of flying and eating needs to escalate. The dad has now takes charge keeping the birds safe at night by joining other males and babies in a large tree for roosting. As lessons progress another baby is lost to a hungry hawk. It's not easy being a baby robin.
Bathing is a must for cleanliness, bug removal and oiling. At two months the learning is still proceeding with listening to adults and practice, practice and more practice. At three months old the night tree gets more crowded. Mom has hatched another set of eggs. Within five months large changes take place and another one is about to begin.
Throughout the title Eileen Christelow has her two "experts" speaking directly to readers. Their informed revelations compel you to keep turning the pages. The insertion of sound effects heightens the realism. You want to know the outcome of all their challenges.
Along with the narrative text, Christelow has the two robins making side comments within speech bubbles on nearly every page. These comments include extra details such as why males chase other males from their space, coloration, animals which eat the eggs, baby food, and the function of tail feathers. They are slightly humorous too. To give readers a sense of time, she places the number of weeks and months old of the babies above a shift in the text. Here is a sample of the narrative.
Dad starts dropping the worms,
and we have to find them.
We poke, peck, scratch...
Then we learn a trick.
If we tilt our heads, we can see and hear better! With a little practice, we're finding moths, spiders, caterpillars...and worms!
Our eyes are on the side of our heads.
Yeah, I'm looking right at you!
Rendered digitally using various Photoshop brushes, an iMac, and a large Wacom Pro tablet all of the illustrations are bursting with life. On the matching dust jacket and book case you can almost hear the peeping of the babies wanting to be fed immediately. To the left, on the back, an adult has captured a worm and is stretching it out of the ground. This is placed within a small square framed in red on a white background. The opening and closing endpapers are robin's breast red.
Eileen Christelow spans her illustrations across a page and a half, in a series of vertical panels, a single page panel, a series of square and rectangle panels on a single page or a combination of a large panel sharing a page with two or three smaller ones. Her picture sizes perfect the pacing. The two narrating robins are always outside of any frame.
To add interest to the visuals she has elements extend outside of the frames. The perspective in the illustrations varies but many times we are given a distinctive bird's eye view usually on the ground because this is about babies coming into adulthood. Her attention to detail is either a result of intense and long observation or extensive research or a combination of both.
One of my favorite series of illustrations is when the last baby bird is poised on the rim of the nest. To the left of the page is a long vertical view of the nest sitting on top of a hoe in a storage shed. Then to the right are five separate smaller pictures. It's almost like stop-action photography how she frames the flapping of wings, the leaning over the edge, the leap and the fall and some flying.
To enhance your collection's bird titles Robins! How They Grow written and illustrated by Eileen Christelow is one you will want to acquire. For libraries in Connecticut, Michigan and Wisconsin it's a must have! At the conclusion of the book is an Author's Note, Glossary, two pages of facts, More About Robins! and Sources, print and online.
To learn more about Eileen Christelow and her other considerable work, please visit her website by following the link attached to her name.
Please visit Kid Lit Frenzy hosted by educator Alyson Beecher to see the other titles listed by bloggers participating in the 2017 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge. It's amazing how much we all learn each week from these nonfiction picture books.