As a kid I was read a fair amount of Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Over the years much of what I heard faded into the mists of memory. However, there is one Little House scenario that stuck with me all through my childhood and cropped up recently in my adult memory as well. It is the moment when Laura and her sister find themselves lost in the tall prairie grasses and realize they might never find their way out again. That image of children lost in grass stretching high above their heads stayed with me. Then time passed and I forgot all about it. Your average New Yorker’s encounter with tall grasses extends pretty much as far as the new High Line Park and no farther. Yet with the recent discovery of Elsie’s Bird, I got my childhood memory back again. The dual Caldecott winners Jane Yolen and David Small come together at long last to tell the tale of a girl, a bird, and a prairie. It’s the kind of book that will wedge its way into the minds of other child readers, causing them to also think of grass as a potential enemy and birds in the wild as more than just background noise.
Elsie leads a happy life in Boston, even after her mother’s death. However, her father finds that the city reminds him too much of his beloved wife, so he packs up Elsie and their belongings and sets off for a sod house in Nebraska to start a whole new life. Young Elsie is allowed to bring her canary Timmy Tune along with her, and he quickly becomes the one bright spot in the midst of her severe Boston homesickness. One day while her father is out, Timmy escapes from Elsie’s cage and without thinking the girl plunges into the thick of the tall grasses to find him once more. What she finds along with her bird, however, is a sudden love for the songs of the prairie birds and the sheer thick of Nebraskan nature. And by the time her father returns with chickens and a dog, “Elsie loved them all for they turned her house into a true prairie home.”
From the bookflap of this title we learn that Jane Yolen got the idea for this story from her husband David Stemple, “who, over his lifetime, traveled to many faraway places in the world, listening to and understanding birds.” Essentially, this is a love song to the country. Now it would be easy to think that just because treacherous prairie grasses provide the beautiful and dangerous backdrop to the story that they are the central conflict in Elsie’s tale. They aren’t, of course. Elsie’s journey requires that she not only grow accustomed to her new Nebraska home, but also send something of herself (her bird, perhaps) free within it. Timmy Tune may escape by accident the first time around, but even when Elsie recovers him again the text reads, “Gently, she put her hands around him, not like a cage to keep him in, but just to touch his golden head.” The fact that Elsie chooses not to cage Timmy again, but rather lets him choose to come to her of his own free will, is an interesting distinction. The last image in the book shows Elsie hugging her new dog, and Timmy perches to her side. Free but faithful. A part of Boston and a part of the country all at once.
David Small’s work on this book reminded me of nothing so much as his last picture book That Book Woman by Heather Henson. In both books he’s placed a rural story against a natural backdrop. Both books are also have long horizontal page lengths. Interestingly, That Book Woman comes in at a mere 10.4” X 8.3” dimensions while Elsie’s Bird goes taller and longer at 11.4” X 9”. The result is that the reader gets to take in the sweep of Boston harbors, neighborhoods, and train stations first, and then prairie horizons, skies, and sod house interiors second. Always look to see where Small is placing the story’s text within the pictures as well. He clears space for the words within each illustration, up until you get to the end of the book. There, on the final spread, the words get a page entirely of their own while on the opposite page sit Elsie, Timmy Tune, and her new dog (an escapee from The Underneath and That Book Woman, perhaps) in a picture entirely of their own.
Small’s use of color proves to be entrancing as well. At first I only noticed little things about it. Sometimes Elsie distinguishes herself from her backgrounds with a thin outline of white around her body. Other times there is no white outline, and she fits deftly into the walls of her sod hut or, as with the cover, into the blue of the prairie sky. Then I noticed that she is sometimes given this white body halo when she is moving in some manner. Whether it’s skipping with her jump rope, or traveling on a train, or running in and out of a prairie. Movement is often depicted with white. My favorite use of color, however, has far more to do with the bird. There is a moment when we read that after searching for her bird, Elsie notices that after singing, “Timmy Tune began to sing back, circling and circling overhead. Then he flew down, perched on her shoulder and sang out loud and long.” Naturally you’d assume that Mr. Small would choose to illustrate the image of the bird on the girl’s shoulder. Instead, the picture we see here is of Elsie seated beside a creek, her eyes suddenly cast upward. Below her, in the reflected water, you see the blue of her dress and the red of her hair smudged in the waves of the water. And just above the reflection’s shoulder, low enough to be caught in the reflection but just a bit too high to be seen in the sky itself, is the telltale yellow smudge of Timmy Tune, circling circling circling downward.
A word or two on Small’s characters. The man has an otherworldly ability with redheaded little girls. Whether it’s Elizabeth Brown in The Library, Lydia Grace Finch in The Gardener, or Annabelle Bernadette Clementine Dodd in The Friend, the man does brilliant little girls. Elsie is no exception. As the star of this book, all other characters, even her father to some extent, are afterthoughts. The title of this book might be Elsie’s Bird but from the cover to the title page, it is Elsie, and not her bird, that is our focus here. Watch what Mr. Small does with her face too. In Boston it’s lit up from the inside. All wide bright blue eyes and small quiet smiles. In Nebraska, however, the smile fades at the sight of her sod hut. Her father, always shown with his head cut out of the frame in some way, retreats even farther into the background. Only when she has survived a trip in and out of the prairie grass do we get to see that particular smile again. And father finally gets to be pictured as more than a retreating silhouette or decapitated head.
Love songs to country living happen periodically in children’s literature but when I try to conjure up names I return yet again to the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. Or maybe Sarah Plain and Tall. It’s much harder to give that landscape the right feel and love in a picture book setting, yet somehow Yolen and Small have managed it together. Between the storyline and characters and Small’s captivating watercolors trapped within thick black pastels, Nebraska has never been so loved. City kids will marvel as I once did at the notion of losing yourself in a vegetation usually cropped and pruned into respectable lawns. Country kids will find a soulmate in a girl so in love with a bird that she casts herself in harm’s way to aid him. And parents will be equally entranced by Yolen’s wordplay and Small’s inventiveness. Quiet. Contained. Original. A keeper.
On shelves September 2nd.
Source: Galley sent for review from publisher.
Interviews: David Small at MLive.