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A Home for Bird

home for birdA Home for Bird has been on my radar for a long time. I was on a recon mission at ALA for new books and I sneaked a slow peek while the Roaring Brook folks were busy. It took me a while to read it because I kept slowing down. There is just so much to take in.

I need to admit right now that I love the loose, crayon-y strokes in this book. From the very first page (which is really the dedication page), I admired those strokes. The junker of a truck (“Careful Moving Co.”) is exactly the kind of truck my dad would have loved. There it is, spilling over with junk: a rug, chair, birdcage, fishing pole and all the rest.  The grey dog hanging off the back of the truck strikes the chord many of us feel when we move. And, what’s this? A little bird has flown the coop, or been tossed out during the bump that has caused the back wheels to leave the road.

Well, that was quite a start.

The rest of the book is filled with the sort of delights that are fun to discuss. Vernon, a sweet frog with the heart of a collector, finds Bird. But, bird says nothing. Vernon concludes that Bird is missing his home, and he is just the frog to find it. The journey, “into the great unknown,” has many twists and turns until Bird does find his home. It’s these twists and turns that are so deeply satisfying. Seeing Bird in a mailbox and in another bird’s nest is sad and fun at the same time and, at some point in the visual narrative, the young reader (and older one, too!) begins to have that delicious feeling of recognition. Oh, yes, those ARE the birdcage and the tablecloth from the truck. Is that the beachball on the road? And the teddy bear! And the dog!

When Bird finally is home, Vernon is happy. It’s got that “And it was still hot” feel, doesn’t it?

Though the words are beautifully understated, this is all about the illustrations. You can understand the plot, characters and emotions from these special (in Caldecott terms, “distnguished”) pages. Still, we have a number of great themes here: friendship, home, working together, caring for others. Then there are the satisfying visual clues that draw the reader completely into the story. The art feels fresh and innocent, all gently handcrafted. If you read Jules Danielson’s interview with Mr. Stead, you will understand the work that went into this seemingly simple book. Water-soluble crayons and gouache play very well together, but, with no computer involved, the slightest mistake means starting all over again.

But, I am glad he stuck with it.


Robin Smith About Robin Smith

Robin Smith is a second-grade teacher at the Ensworth School in Nashville, Tennessee. She is a reviewer for Kirkus and The Horn Book Magazine and has served on multiple award committees.



  1. Dean Schneider says:

    This was probably the first picture book of 2012 that I read, also at the Roaring Brook booth at ALA, with Neal Porter excitedly showing it off to me, and it’s still my favorite picture book of the year. It has such a classic feel to it–a circular story about friendship and finding home. I love it for all of the reasons Robin points out. Such a pleasing combination of art, text, and design. If I were on the committee this year, this is the one I’d be arguing for, criterion by criterion.

  2. I had the opposite reaction from you in that I really enjoyed this story but am not as excited about the illustrations. There are many picture books published each year that do not offer readers a new and satisfying plot, and I feel like this book delivers in the plot department. While I do not dislike the illustrations, this book would not be among my favorites if I were to consider only the illustrations. Given that the Caldecott is given to the illustrator, would I have to omit this book from my list of contenders if I were on the committee?

  3. Dean Schneider says:

    Amy, what specifically is it about the illustrations that you don’t appreciate? Certainly, if you were on the committee, not liking the illustrations would make it a book you wouldn’t be arguing for.

  4. The illustrations are too busy for my taste. I like the energy in them, and I do not dislike them. I wanted it to be more obvious from the illustrations that the bird was pretend and the other characters were real.

  5. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    And, here is where the discussions would begin. Some people on the committee will love (or like) the illustrations and some will not appreciate them. The starting point will be what people appreciate about the book and the art in particular. Then others will give specifics about what they had problems with. It’s interesting to see how strongly different people around the table will perceive the same book.!

    I particularly enjoyed the pacing of the book–some busy pages, some pages with a lot of white space. Green and blue frame a number of the spreads, making some nice connections. And, of course, there is the road, almost missed on the river page (nice visual foreshadowing) prominent at the end of the journey home. The art is loose, for sure, but that makes sense to me given that Vernon is a junk collector and Bird, is, well, a broken bird until he finds his home.

    I did not think Bird was pretend at all, to tell you the truth. He seems as real as can be, at least to me.

  6. I am generally a fan of quieter, softer illustrations than those in A Home for Bird, but this book has completely won me over. The detail is terrific and adds to an already great text. Vernon’s personality would just not have the same depth without the pictures. This is a book that I can read again and again without tiring of it. Definitely one of my favorites this year.

  7. Susan Dailey says:

    I really appreciate the opportunity to hear what other people think of possible Caldecott contenders. There are certain styles of art that I find immediately appealing–just because I like them. Personally, I’m more attracted to Paul Zelinsky’s beautiful illustrations in “Rapunzel” than Chris Raschka’s “scribbly” style in “Hello, Goodbye Window.”

    In a Mock Caldecott presentation, I posed the question of whether “art” and “illustration” are the same thing. I came to the conclusion that art is evocative and emotional. Illustration can be those things, but it has to be effective–telling a story well. This year, I’ve been trying to look at the pictures and figure out the story without reading it the first time through the book. I was able to do this in “A Home for Bird.” So while it isn’t my favorite style of art, it is effective for all the reasons others have mentioned.

  8. Susan Dailey says:

    Robin and Lolly…and anyone else who’s sat on the “real” committee,

    How hard was it to get beyond personal style preferences in evaluating illustrations?

  9. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    I do love the rumpledness. And I like that it has a theme, but not a lesson. I’ve been reading a touted Newbery contender and enjoying it well enough, but I keep asking myself, “Is there a theme here? Or is it just adventure?” A Home for Bird has both.

  10. Robin Smith says:

    Great question, Susan.
    I can only speak for me, but, It is pretty hard to get beyond personal style preferences AT FIRST. It didn’t take long for me to carefully read the nominations and realize that there is often a LOT more to a book than initially meets the eye.

    My personal style preferences lean away from “too perfect” art or art that feels cold. However, since it’s illustration, the style needs to make sense with the story.

  11. Robin Smith says:

    YES! Theme not lesson.

  12. Susan Dailey says:

    Great point about the style needing to match the story! Zelinsky’s lush paintings in “Rapunzel” certainly wouldn’t match the warm & childlike text of “Hello, Goodbye Window.”

  13. Susan Dailey says:

    Back to “A Home for Bird.” I shared the book with my 7-year old grandson last night. He enjoyed it a lot. He chuckled over the repetitive, “Bird said nothing.” We laughed over Vernon’s bottlecap hat as he sailed in the teacup. A few pages from the end, he said, “Cuckoo clock” because it dawned on him where bird belonged. When I went to turn to that last page, I realized how satisfying it felt. Sharing the book with a child definitely made me appreciate the book more.

  14. Lolly Robinson Lolly Robinson says:

    I agree with what Robin said about the pacing, and I love the completeness and age-apropriateness of the story. I keep going back to the first picture of the truck, noticing all the details sharp-eyed readers will find AFTER that first read. But I’m a little distracted by the energetic lines in the sky. Is this a case of personal style preferences? Maybe, but I think it’s actually in reverse. I am so in love with energetic lines that I seem to be drawn to them like some kind of magnet. For me, the big scribbly lines in this book work best when they are meant to be leaves in the tree, since they could be rustling peripherally. I have a lot of admiration for this book and think that both Steads need to be on everyone’s radar. They are so YOUNG and so GOOD at what they do! But I think one of the hardest things to learn is how to get rid of elements that are super-cool but don’t serve the whole. This is something I see in a lot of early work, and not just in picture books. I love Brahms’s first symphony, but I think there are a few too many exciting new themes to make the piece work as a cohesive whole. For Brahms, that came later. I have no question that Philip Stead is on his way to becoming a Brahms.

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