Book #272: Elsie’s Bird

Elsie's Bird -- coverSorry to be redundant, but it’s David Small’s magnificent illustrations that compel me to write about a 2010 book called Elsie’s Bird. It’s about a little girl who moves from Boston to Nebraska during the time of the American pioneers. The words, by Jane Yolen (of Owl Moon and countless others) work beautifully with Small’s pictures, and while this story may not be as exciting to little boys as Zita the Spacegirl (which Ray is obsessed with these days and I will talk about later) I think it’s important to read books like these.

All the way west, the clacking of the wheels
reminded Elsie how far she was going,
away from the sound of the sea
and the familiar bowl of sky.
She might not have gone west
had she known the only sea there was a sea of grass.

She might not have gone west
had she known the nearest neighbors lived miles away.
She might have stayed home in Boston
with her Nana and Nonny.
But she had already lost her mother.
She couldn’t bear to be parted from Papa, too.

This is a book about homesickness and change and the glories of nature.  “Come with me to the river, Elsie,” her father says, “the fish are jumping with flies.” But Elsie misses the noise of Boston, incomparable to the stifling silence of the prairie.

Elsie's Bird -- Boston

When Elsie’s canary flies away, she is forced out of the house and into a sea of prairie grass in her quest to find him. She finds the canary, thankfully, but in her search she finds other things, too.


Elsie's Bird -- face

You expect illustrations to this sort of language to be serene and gorgeous and filled with the harmonious colors of nature, but Small’s lines are almost ungainly in places. His characters are bony; their faces stark looking. I love the way his characters look, and the way he works with watercolors and light. And of course there is nothing inelegant about his landscapes.

In many ways this book exemplifies what I hope to give to our children in the way of picture books: a place to stop and think and admire, and to sit still, pondering the power of language and pictures.  ABZ

Elsie's Bird -- nebraska

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