Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Boy Who Drew Birds by Jacqueline Davies

The Boy Who Drew Birds: A Story of John James Audubon by Jacqueline Davies, illustrated by Melissa Sweet

Rating: 5 stars

About a month ago Ben was playing with an airplane, complete with little pilot, that he had crafted from Legos.  As he zoomed the little thing through the air, he said, "I'm Amelia Earhart!  Here I go!"

I stopped what I was doing a few feet away in the kitchen (I'm there a whole lot), and asked him to repeat himself.  He did.  I asked him how he knew who Amelia Earhart was.

"Santa brought me a book about her for Christmas!" he stated.

Wow!  Go, Santa!  I patted myself on the back but was more surprised than proud at the fact that her name and a few facts about her sank into his bright, little brain.

I just wrote about Ben's interest in birds thanks to his pre-Kindergarten class's unit on birds (click here to read it), and the interest stayed alive throughout this quietly wonderful biography on John James Audubon. It's a beautifully illustrated, wordy book, best for age 5-ish and up, I think.  It tells this wonderful story:

To avoid fighting in Napoleon's war, his father ships his son, John James, to Pennsylvania.  The boy is talented at many things, but his natural instinct draws him to birds.  Soon after arriving to his new home and while spending most of his days outside wandering and observing, he finds a cave.  In it sits a small, empty nest.  Weeks later, he sees that the small pewee fly-catchers returned to the nest.

Right then, John James starts wondering the same thing that scientists and naturalists wondered around that time:  Are these the same pewees who built the nest last year? Where did they spend the winter? Will they return again next spring?  He quickly draws the birds and notes his observations in his notebook, which he kept in his musée, or museum, otherwise known as his bedroom.  Every inch of that room is covered with nests and eggs and tree brances and pebbles and lichen and feathers...

But where were last year's babies, now grown?
He began to search the woods and orchard nearby,
listening for their call.
At that time, some people thought small birds hibernated under water or in hollowed logs all winter.  Others thought the small birds transformed into another species, while one scientist claimed that birds fly to the moon during winter!  In case you're wondering, he thought that journey took 60 days (but I'm not sure if that's one-way or round-trip...).  John James is determined to figure out the mystery, so he begins to experiment with a tracking system.  After more errors than success in his trial-and-error process, he finally finds a light silver thread that fits snugly on one of the young pewee's legs.  At the end of fall, the bird flies off.

All winter John James waits, and also paints pictures of birds and collects little artifacts for his musée.  Finally, as the days grow longer, he sees a pewee bird fly into his cave.  But there is no string.  He begins to search the woods around the cave.  Sure enough, out in the meadow, he finds the now-mature baby with a silver thread around its leg.  In 1804, he is the first person in North America to band a bird.  And his simple experiment solved a complex theory.

I love that one boy's curiosity and respectful experiment with the birds he loved revealed so much.  What a wonderful lesson for girls and boys of today!

While Jacqueline Davies deserves applause for thinking up, researching, and writing the book (Bravo!), the book would not be complete without Caldecott-winning illustrator Melissa Sweet.  Her illustrations are spectacular, as always (my favorite book of hers is not the one for which she earned the Caldecott but for another nonfiction A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippen).  

Happy birding!

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