Monday, February 4, 2013

Elsie's Bird by Jane Yolen

 Elsie's Bird by Jane Yolen, illustrated by David Small

Rating: 4.5 stars

When I first started writing this blog, I remember coming across a book that I read to Lorelei where, in the middle of the story, the mother died.  Lorelei was probably 3.  I kicked myself for not reading the book first, so that I could at the very least plan my editing before making up words on the fly.  Now that she's 5 1/2, I appreciate the greater depth of understanding she now has about how the world works.

I don't want to supply her lots of books with sad topics, but let's face it: there's a lot of stuff that happens to our kids or to their friends that is, as my father would say, un-good.  I can hear his words: It's not what happens to you, great Kate (his nickname, once in a while I live up to it), it's how you respond to it.  And that's it: responding to adversity is a tough thing for a kid to learn.  One way of helping your child learn this necessary skill is by providing a book such as Elsie's Bird and letting them learn about and explore sadness and disappointment--and how to recover from it--from the comfort of your lap.

With that build up, this book really isn't all THAT sad!

"Here there is only grass and sky and silence," Elsie wrote.
Elsie is a happy-as-a-lark girl growing up in turn-of-the-century busy and bustling Boston.  She loves the sounds of the city, but the birds are her favorite.  When her mother dies, her papa longs for something far away from Boston, away from the sadness that resonates for him there.  Her papa takes her far away--to Nebraska.  The busy-ness of the city is replaced by the silence of the prairie, and Elsie is sad and lonely.

Her solace lies in her sweet canary, named Timmy Tune, who keeps her company during her solitary days and quiet nights.  Elsie rarely leaves the house; she isn't ready to embrace her new world.  One day her canary gets out of his cage, and she runs after her only friend.  The little bird returns to her when she sings him his favorite tune, and together they finally open themselves to the sounds of their new home and begin to appreciate them.

Perhaps it's the Army brat in me that identifies with little Elsie--going to a new place is pretty tough on kids.  Add in an extra dose of adversity with a parent dying, and you've got a sad situation.  But Elsie finds her happiness in simple joys: her papa, the animals around her, and nature.  I like that Lorelei has in Elsie an example of quality creature comforts, and as Lorelei faces pint-sized bits of adversity (i.e. losing a game of Monopoly to her little brother), she can learn to cheer herself up a little.

Jane Yolen is a great story-teller, and I found the story of how she wrote the book fascinating--she read an article in Smithsonian of women who moved from their comfortable Eastern homes to the quiet Nebraska farms and went a little crazy.  "It was too big a place," and many walked through the grasses, got lost, and died (this is referenced in the book).  Those who brought canaries from back East seemed to have a higher survival rate. Huh!  Amazing!  And David Small is just fantastic.  Realistic but very, very sweet illustrations, characters with warm expressions and sweeping scenes...these are all his specialties and are featured in the book.

A great book, though for a slightly older crowd.

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