Wisdom the Midway Albatross: Surviving the Japanese Tsunami and Other Disasters for Over 60 Years
By Darcy Pattison
Illustrated by Kitty Harvill
On shelves now
If I had a better knowledge of my nonfiction children’s history then I might be able to tell you the exact moment that biographies of individual animals took off. Technically we’ve seen them for years, in books like the Newbery Honor winning Rascal (which is considered nonfiction in spite of some creative liberties) from 1963. The picture book animal biography feels comparatively new to me. I think they may have existed in spurts here and there but in the last ten years there’s been a veritable explosion of them on the scene. This is a very good thing. When done well a good animal bio can provide insight into an otherwise unapproachable species, foster concern beyond our own human lives, and give a glimpse into the wider natural world. True to life incredible journeys of wild animals are difficult to tell, though. If the animal is truly wild then how do you extrapolate its life without relying on fantasy and conjecture? Wisdom: The Midway Albatross offers at least one solution to that question. Add history to facts to the glorious innovation of banding wild animals and you have yourself a bird bio that’s easy to distinguish from the flock.
The life of your average everyday laysan albatross is not often a happy one. Particularly if you have had the monumentally bad luck to have been born around 1950. Having survived the trials of growing up, avoiding sharks, and even a 1952 tsunami, one little albatross lived and was banded by research scientists in the year 1956. After that time she had to survive tropical storms, delicious looking floating plastic and fishing lines until she was caught again (by the same scientist, no less) in 2002. Having survived all that, was she capable of living past the Japanese tsunami of 2011? Pattison follows the bird’s life closely, ending her book with facts about Wisdom (calling her “The Oldest Bird in the World”, which would have been my choice of title) as well as info on your average laysan albatross, and useful websites for further reading.
It’s more than just the story of one small bird and more than just some informational text about the life cycle of an albatross. Under Pattison’s hand Wisdom’s tale takes on an almost epic cycle. You start out thinking that this is just your average animal adventure and by the end you’re wondering how much we even understand about the natural world. If a lucky albatross, avoiding every seaborne calamity on record, can live at least to the age of sixty-one and continue to breed and brood, what other animals are blessed with such longevity? If there’s any problem at all it might be that Pattison repeats the refrain of “Somehow Gooney survived” almost too often. The temptation to do so is understandable but I worried that the momentous weight of that survival didn’t feel quite as powerful when heard so often.
While Pattison is known for her other books in the children’s literary sphere, artist Kitty Harvill’s work remains largely unknown. A wildlife artist and conservationist, Harvill’s watercolors in this book serve the words more than the other way around. They leave a good amount of space for the text, avoiding the pitfalls of some artists unfamiliar with the picture book world that slap white space and text on one page and an image on the other. One point that made me curious was how Harvill chose to deal with Pattison’s suppositions. We can extrapolate Wisdom’s life by knowing both our history of the region as well as the perils facing the bird’s kind. And while the author utilizes the word “somehow” very cleverly in the phrases that explain that she survived, Harvill accompanies these with images of pairs of birds. In many cases one albatross will fall prey to fishing lines or plastic treats while the other abstains. But since we are not specifically pointing to one of those birds and calling her “Wisdom”, the book gets away with it (and, I should note, never really shows any birds dying of sharks or storms, etc.).
It’s a book with a very small press, one going by the name of Mims House. When independent publishers create children’s literature the results are invariably mixed. In this particular case I was encouraged by the writing (and my familiarity with the author), the art to a certain extent, and the design. Though paperback, the paper quality is not bad. However I was a little disappointed in the font and layout. Though the text is expertly laid onto the images, weaving in and out of the pictures with ease, the font itself looks like something you might find in a child’s school report. I’m not entirely certain whether it’s the style or the size or a combination of the two, but whatever the case it’s a misleadingly poor element in what stands as a rather cool informational text.
I don’t usually go so far as to praise the blurbs of a book, but in this case. I’ll make an exception. Some clever soul not only thought to get the wise words of Newbery Honor author Kirby Larson (who penned her own nonfiction picture book Two Bobbies: A True Story of Hurricane Katrina Friendship and Survival) but also retired Senior Scientist Chandler S. Robbins. Now it sometimes doesn’t take much to get a scientist to blurb a picture book and normally my eyes glaze over about the time we see a degree appear, but in this particular case Robbins is an exceptional get since he’s the very guy who banded the bird back in 1956 in the first place. His words have an almost philosophical ring to them as well. He says at one point, “While I have grown old and gray and get around with the use of a cane, Wisdom still looks and acts just the same as the day I banded her.” Truth. Stranger than fiction.
As I mentioned before, had I been in charge of this book I would have gone whole hog and named it “Wisdom: The Oldest Bird in the World” or something along those lines. As it stands, Pattison has uncovered one heckuva story. I can say with certainty that no child has ever walked up to my library’s children’s reference desk asking for nonfiction albatross books for pleasure reading, but for those kids assigned animal bios (it happens), easy nonfiction reads, or just books on birds in general, I now know exactly what it is I’m going to want to hand them. A keeper, you bet.
On shelves now.
Source: Galley sent for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- City Hawk: The Story of Pale Male by Meghan McCarthy
- Mama by Jeanette Winter
- Tsunami! by Kimiko Kajikawa illustrated by Ed Young
- Be sure to check out Ms. Pattison’s blog for this book. Lots of great environmental info is to be found there as well as Common Core Comprehension Questions for CCSS or AR.
- Happy Nonfiction Monday! Jean Little Library has today’s round-up. Head on over to see what’s hot.
Finally, here’s a video where you can see Wisdom herself feeding her chick.