Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Winged Wonders

It is a welcome sound after the lengthy winter months cloaked in snow, chill and silence.  It is so loud, it penetrates the walls of the house.  It's barely warm enough to open a window, but the melodious notes implore a listener to do this very thing.  On a gentle breeze blowing through the now opened window, it's a soul-soothing concert free to all who can hear.

For the past several days in the early morning hours, a single bird sings with piercing sweetness.  Not only does this bird and its companion species provide us with songs but they are essential to Earth's ecology.  Their physical characteristics, habits and habitats are varied and fascinating.  The Big Book of Birds (Thames & Hudson, June 4, 2019) is the fourth book in an engaging series written and illustrated by Yuval Zommer.  It is as captivating as The Big Book of Bugs, The Big Book of Beasts and The Big Book of the Blue.

Can you find . . .
. . .exactly the same egg
15 times in this book?
Watch out for imposters.

With these words, readers are challenged and eager to turn the next page.  We are greeted with a phrase


asking us to look at the titles for the twenty-six, two-page chapters.  To begin birds are grouped into seven families based on their features, abilities in hunting, the strength of their senses, places of residence, and navigation techniques.  We are then acquainted with best practices in observing birds; most important is to remember we are visitors in their realms.

Five short sections advise us on facts about feathers.  Do you know birds share the same protein as humans for our hair and nails in the composition of their feathers?  Migration is addressed disclosing the number of birds who do this annually, how they know when to go, the time of day they prefer to move, how they align themselves with the Earth's magnetic field and what some birds do if they can't fly.

Throughout the title along with more general topics, focus turns to specific birds.  The first bird discussed is the Great Gray Owl.  Of its many distinctive physical capabilities it has an astonishing range of vision.  While you might know why flamingos are pink (their food), it's certain you are unaware how they keep cool.  It's not by standing in water.  Kingfishers tend to swallow their fish whole, head first.

Birds unable to fly make up for this by being fast runners, or hiding underground.  The speed at which an emu can run is unbelievable.  You won't find secretary birds working for or with anyone, but you will notice them for their crest, their height and their consumption of snakes.  Guess which bird can fly as high as nearly seven Empire State Buildings stacked top to bottom?  Although puffins are speedy flyers, their landings leave a lot to be desired.  Look out!

We learn about architectural nests, eggs and hatching, beaks and feeding, bird calls and songs, city birds and how we can make our gardens more bird friendly.  Interspersed among these chapters are facts about the albatross, hummingbirds, peacocks, robins, swans, hoopoes and red-crowned cranes.  Which one rids itself of the salt in water through a hole above its eye?  Which one has to eat seven times in an hour?  Or which one puts its nest on a platform of weeds?  With each chapter, like layers forming a beautiful whole, our respect and fascination with these winged wonders grows.

As in the three previous titles, Yuval Zommer has a masterful knack for selecting those facts sure to entertain and educate readers.  Within the more common traits of a bird, he points out those things which distinguishes it from other birds.  You will constantly and consistently find yourself surprised at what you don't know but glad you now know.  The format of presenting a question at the beginning of each chapter allows Yuval Zommer to supply appropriate and easily understood answers.  Readers will also get a feel for the sense of humor he has in the section headings.  Here are some passages.

Magnetic attraction
A bird finds its way by spotting familiar
mountains and rivers along the way.  It also looks
at where the sun and stars are in the sky.  Birds 
can even sense the magnetic fields in the Earth
to work out which way is north.

Turn that frown upside down
A parrot has a top bill that curves downwards
and a bottom bill that curves upwards.  Parrots
like the scarlet macaw look happy all the time!

Cozy commute
A city is often 9 (degrees F) warmer than the
surrounding countryside.  Millions of
starlings fly into London every night
to get a toasty night's sleep.

When you open the book case an array of birds, their feathers and their activities are depicted among the title text and framing a blurb to the left on the back.  The realistic, colorful birds and the white text on green (wonderful design choice) are varnished to further attract readers' attentions.  Most notable here and within the body of the book are the birds' eyes.  They are either looking at us; as if they are as curious about us as we are about them or both eyes are focused on a specific element in the visual.

On the opening and closing endpapers, in a swirl of light, white clouds on a pale blue sky, are circles indicative of wind patterns.  On the first scene cranes are flying from the lower, left-hand corner.  At the conclusion they are flying off the upper, right-hand corner.  This background pattern is continued on the initial title page with more birds flying.  On the formal title page, birds on the ground among plants and birds in trees provide a border for the text with the exception of the flamingo hanging from the top of the page.

The whimsical, intricately detailed artwork of Yuval Zommer is highly appealing.  The birds are showcased in an attractive manner.  As you would expect for the Bird Family Tree chapter, a large tree supplies perches for most of the birds.  This page and three others are displayed vertically.  Feathers cascade behind birds in flight for Feathers And Flying.  A variety of sea scenes highlight the chapter on Albatrosses.

With each section image are other stories.  Insects, amphibians and reptiles roam among the birds and their habitats.  Who sailed the boat into the puffin picture?  Why is all the plastic debris in one of the ocean illustrations?  Do you think a courageous cat prowling on a rooftop will get the bird?  Background colors are altered due to habitat but also to generate interest.

One of my many, many favorite illustrations is for the chapter Birds On The Move.  It's a night scene probably early when the sky is first darkening.  Only a few stars are showing; it's a full moon night.  The moon is placed in the upper, right-hand corner of this double-page picture. (All the illustrations are double-page pictures.)  Clouds, in shades of white and gray are on the far left; one drops rain.  Cranes soar across the top from left to right.  Beneath them, two lines of smaller birds fly.  A small cloud under them has snowflakes falling.  A final line of birds travels in an arcing line from left to right.  All of this is above a series of mountains with a river between them.  In the lower, right-hand corner a group of emus are walking the first steps of their 300-mile journey.  The perspectives on this page are wonderful.

For science-loving folk, bird watchers or anyone who likes to learn at least one, but probably more, new thing every day, The Big Book of Birds written and illustrated by Yuval Zommer is an excellent choice.  Barbara Taylor acts as a consultant for Yuval Zommer in this title.  At the close of the book thumbnails of the chapters highlighting the hidden egg are provided.  After this six words are defined for those wanting to further improve their bird knowledge.  A complete index closes out the book.

To learn more about Yuval Zommer and his other work, please follow the link attached to his name to access a website.  Yuval Zommer has accounts on Instagram and Twitter.  You can read more about Yuval Zommer through interviews at Acorn Books and The Children's Book Review.

Please take a few moments to view the titles selected this week by participants in the 2019 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge hosted by educator Alyson Beecher at Kid Lit Frenzy.

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