How to Find a Bird

I'm not a big bird fan, bordering on phobia (the thought of talons and my big, curly hair—horror). Living in the city, all the pigeons and the geese and the poop. 

How to Find a Bird by Jennifer Ward, illus. by Diana Sudyka, came out in August and was reviewed, and starred, in the July/August issue of the Magazine. By then, the city had shut down and partially reopened, the disaster that was virtual school had ended for the year (it’s much better now), and we were basically in the groove of working from home. And my bad attitude toward birds has softened, thanks in part to How to Find a Bird.

On the title page sits a watchful, realistically drawn owl that seems almost to be winking at us. It’s a little bit playful, and reassuring, without being anthropomorphized. The book’s only human figures are two young children who move from scene to scene, habitat to habitat, with a sense of curiosity and wonder. They begin on a colorfully illustrated city block (a cat sits in one window, nature’s bird-watcher). There’s a big, flashy pigeon in the sky, but also more diminutive birds on the sidewalk. They may be smaller and less showy, but they’re worthy of attention.

Throughout the book, Ward’s easy-to-follow advice (“move slowly,” “have a sharp eye,” “quiet is good too”) is thoughtfully echoed in Sudyka’s digitally finished watercolor gouache illustrations. The motion-filled and painterly hued pictures—precise without being fussy—are varied in setting, texture, color, and placement, and enhance the mystery, wonder, and sense of adventure of bird-watching. The creatures are labeled, field guide-style, and unobtrusively (for example, both the American Bittern and its label are nearly camouflaged as the children practice “blending in” to try to spot it).

By the end of the book, it’s clear that birds have different traits, appearances, and “personalities,” which Sudyka plays up in the detailed drawings, including a spread of extinct species. After spending time with this book, I realize that my opening assertion “I’m not a big bird fan” doesn’t hold much meaning, as a peregrine falcon and red-throating hummingbird, for example, are quite different. Also? Not even the most ardent bird-watcher loves getting pooped on (see the “mourning dove” page).

Most importantly, per the afterword: we can all be bird watchers! Sudyka’s art helps underscore this ornithological message through a welcoming approachability for all readers, no matter their location, equipment, or experience. So far during the pandemic, my city-dwelling family has seen and/or heard the usual pigeons and geese, and also robins, blue jays, cardinals, starlings, mourning doves, woodpeckers, a family of wild turkeys (babies were cute and fluffy), hawks (both in the city and soaring out in nature—thrilling!), and more. It’s all because we’ve been paying attention to our surroundings in a different way—with books such as How to Find a Bird as guidance.

 

 Birdwatcher convert Elissa and her two sons spot a raptor! Photo by Ken Silber.

Elissa Gershowitz

Elissa Gershowitz is executive editor of The Horn Book, Inc. She holds an MA from the Center for the Study of Children's Literature at Simmons University and a BA from Oberlin College.

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