Saturday, December 15, 2012

Book #350: Elsie’s Bird by Jane Yolen, Illustrated by David Small

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Elsie has always lived in Boston. She knows the sounds of the streets and the rhymes the kids sing as they play on the corner. Best of all, she knows the birds that sing in the trees: cardinals, chickadees, robins, wrens. She listens to their songs and sings them back. But then Elsie’s mother dies and her Papa decides it’s time to move far away from Boston. Papa, Elsie, and Elsie’s pet canary, Timmy Tune, board the train that takes them farther and farther away from everything Elsie knows to the sod house on their new farm in Nebraska. There is music in the wind that whistles through the grass, but Elsie is too heartbroken to hear it until the day Timmy escapes from his cage. Elsie has never explored the tall grasses, but she’ll do anything to find her best friend. She sings Timmy’s favorite song and soon he has landed on her shoulder to sing with her. And then it happens. Elsie hears the voices of the plains, the wind rippling in the grass, the cries of a blackbird, “Koo-a-lee.” And she sings back to the voices songs from Boston, skip-rope songs, sea shanties, and hymns from church.

Yolen’s beautifully worded text brings to life the two environments that deeply affect Elsie’s life. Lines of hymns, jump-romp rhymes, and children’s songs are woven into the text emphasizing Elsie’s love of music. Through text and illustrations Elsie’s carefree happiness in Boston is contrasted with her despondency and isolation in Nebraska. Small’s illustrations consume the entire page with loose line work and watercolor washes. Black ink in varying thicknesses is used to outline elements providing definition and contrast. Small uses just enough detail to bring the historical setting (I’m guessing around the late 1800’s) to life, but not so much that the illustrations are cluttered.

Pair this story with other books about moving and adapting to a new home, such as The Quiet Place or The Gardener (coincidentally, both were illustrated by Small). Follow up with poems about traveling from Come with Me: Poems for a Journey.

Bring in non-fiction books about birds and learn more about birds found in Nebraska and Boston. Are there any that can be found in both locations? eNature provides audio files for hundreds of bird calls. Listen to them. Can you imitate the calls? Birds use different sounds to communicate, to call one another or to sound an alarm. The Exploratorium has an interactive online game that allows kids to listen to three different sounds from the same type of bird: song, call, and alarm. Talk about how humans use different sounds to communicate different emotions. Check out Project Beak, a website for kids devoted to birds that live in Nebraska. The website also includes teacher resources.

Check out Yolen’s website for insight into the creation of this book.


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