Review of the Day: Odd Birds by Laura Gehl, ill. Gareth Lucas
I write long reviews for books that are intended for very small people. I do this because I am of the opinion that just because the intended reader is younger than me, that’s no reason to give their books short shrift. Children’s books have to be the best possible books because our kids deserve no less. Now, inevitably, I’ll write a seven or eight paragraph review about a picture book and post it online and then some digital wag will come along in the comments and inform me that my review is “longer than the book”. This is not really news to me as I wrote all of those words myself. There’s always this assumption, though, that if a book is short then there’s not much to say about it. That’s often true of bad or (worse) mediocre books, but if you’ve a good one in your hot little hands, there’s no end to the things you can say about it! I’m just setting you up here, and you probably know it. I don’t do it very often, but sometimes, when the right one comes along, I’ll even review board books. This is a rare occurrence because, if I’m going to be frank with you, truly great board books are very difficult to find. You might locate one or two every year if you’re lucky. I, myself, am lucky. Lucky, because I have discovered the wonder and beauty of Laura Gehl and Gareth Lucas’s Odd Birds. Mixing jewel-like tones with simple words and marvelous backmatter (board book backmatter is a thing now!), this is the extremely rare successful nonfiction board book that’s developmentally appropriate for its target audience. In other words, a unicorn.
What are the oddest birds in the world? The competition’s stiff but author Laura Gehl has some answers. Feast your eyes on eight of the wildest avian beauties you ever did see. From the frigatebird’s balloon-like red neck to the beak of a shoebill stork to an oilbird’s echolocation, each bird gets a marvelous full color two-page spread in pulsing colors. Gently rhyming text wraps the whole thing together and backmatter consists of photographs of the real birds with further information.
What is the worst kind of board book? There are lots of contenders out there. Unsuccessful picture book to board book transitions are one form of failure. Have you ever seen the board book version of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs? Textbook ridiculousness. Mind you, that came out a while ago. These days, publishers have mostly figured out that not all picture books are meant for small, thick pages. Unfortunately, that hasn’t stopped them from cramming other board books full of developmentally inappropriate information. The more recent trend? Nonfiction board books. The Smithsonian is a good example of an institute that does this on a regular basis, though there are plenty of others that are equally guilty. They’ll just cram the pages of a board book full of text. Concepts that would float over six-year-old’s head are squeezed onto board book sized pages with little to no editorial reductions. I loathe such books. Even when there are wonderful photographs involved, the text can prove to be an obstruction. One might despair of there ever being any good nonfiction board books out there at all. This is where Gehl and Lucas set out to prove folks like me wrong. Because when you look at Odd Birds or their previous collaboration on Odd Beasts, you realize pretty quickly that not only is it possible to do such books, but necessary.
Board books are, as a rule, the oddities of the children’s book world. They don’t win awards. They’re often treated as afterthoughts. And the degree to which our board book market is dominated by French imports indicates to me that we Americans simply don’t view them as significant moneymakers (since they’re so much cheaper than any other kind of children’s book) and therefore consider them of less interest. Babies may deserve the best books out there, but babies apparently don’t deserve high quality books on their level. That’s part of why I love Odd Birds so much. Look at the cover for a minute here. What do you see? Do you see a huge pair of eyes staring into your soul? Yeah, you do! And do you know what babies like? They like faces, folks. They like eyes. This cover is compelling to even an immobile drooler, and (almost as important) it is also compelling to adult readers. Good thing too, since a board book is designed to be read repeatedly, over and over, until all sense or meaning has been lost and the syllables just run together in your sleep-deprived brain. Probably a good idea to get board books that are actually interesting then, yes?
Naturally, looking at this stunning art, I had to figure out who the heck this Gareth Lucas bloke was. Turns out he’s English, living in Essex, and his illustrations are described as incorporating a folk art style. A quick glimpse at his portfolio also reveals that he has a real yen for one thing: animals. I don’t think there’s an image on his Instagram page that isn’t bug, bird, or beast related. What sets Odd Birds apart from this other art is that he’s really dialed down the more cartoonish or exaggerated aspects. These birds may be rendered beautifully, but they’re also relatively realistic. Even the oilbird, which is viewed in almost an infrared style with sound waves radiating off of its own wings (can you tell that it’s my favorite picture in the book?), is portrayed realistically. Unfortunately, the limitations of board books mean that I have no idea how he creates this art. The odds are pretty good that it’s all digital, of course, and that’s fine. I just can’t begin to figure out how pixels can help you create the layers of beautiful tones and hues that you find on these pages.
It is easy, when faced with a beautifully illustrated book for kids, to play up the illustrator’s accomplishments and downplay (intentionally or no) the author’s contributions. Laura Gehl has been making picture books and easy books and board books for years. When I initially read her name, I knew that one of them had to be in my home. I had the distinct sense that I’d said her name aloud to my own children repeatedly. Finally, I went through her oeuvre and discovered that she was the person behind one of my favorite math-related picture books of all time, One Big Pair of Underwear, illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld. In this book she carefully places down very few words and they’re always pitch perfect. To make this title flow (and, by gum, to rhyme too) she had to select the “odd birds” of the title. Then she had to figure out the order in which they appear in the book. Finally, she had to write the rather extensive backmatter to explain why, for example, a hoatzin smells like poop (a lengthy digestion process, in case you’re curious). It’s more work than your average everyday board book would entail but the end product is worth it.
I won’t linger on the photos in the back, even though I desperately want to. Suffice to say, they really highlight how accurately Mr. Lucas has illustrated this book. So here’s a question for you: What do you do with a truly beautiful board book? Are you the kind of person who feels that such a title would be wasted on the babies? I hope not. I actually keep a little box of the particularly wonderful board books my own kids have long outgrown. Stuff like The Swing by Robert Louis Stevenson, illustrated by Julie Morstad. You don’t have to be as weirdly obsessive as I am, but I suspect that after getting this book, you should be aware that it’s a distinct possibility. You may find yourself reading it on your own for fun when you think no one’s looking. Or tucking it surreptitiously into your coffee table’s shelves for future reference. If you do, I support you in your weird obsession. When a board book’s a one in a million, you are not responsible for what you do with it after its purchase. And our babies never had it so good.
On shelves June 14th.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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