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Review of the Day: Bird Talk by Lita Judge

Bird Talk: What Birds Are Saying and Why
By Lita Judge
Roaring Brook Press (an imprint of Macmillan)
ISBN: 978-1-59643-646-6
Ages 6-10
On shelves now

The older you get the more facts seem to change. For example, when I was a kid I remember that some facts were as of yet unprovable but were told with a certain ring of truth. Take the dinosaurs as an example. As a kid I “knew” that they had all died out probably because of a big nasty meteor. Talk to a kid today and ask them what killed the dinosaurs and you will receive a very different interpretation. The dinos? Why didn’t you know? They all turned into birds! Which is to say, there’s a working theory at the moment that says that the dinos evolved into the birdies we know and love today. With that new theory in mind I can think of few author/illustrators better equipped to write a factual illustrated bird picture book than Ms. Lita Judge. Having wowed the masses already with her fantastic Born to Be Giants: How Baby Dinosaurs Grew to Rule the World it seems only appropriate that she should turn her sights on the next stage in evolution: those with some avian flair.

How much do you really know about birds? They’re our neighbors, after all. Even if you live in the most busting of metropolises, you’re bound to catch a glimpse of them here or there. Yet are they the brainless twittering nobodies we sometimes take them to be or is there something else at work? Are they, in fact, capable of communication? Turning her attention to twenty-eight different kinds of birds, Ms. Judge separates her book into the ways birds choose to stand out amongst one another, how they greet each other, how they find one another, how they protect one another, encourage each other, listen, and learn. Accompanied by Ms. Judge’s gorgeous lush watercolors, kids get short sweet glimpses into the lives of birds, common and otherwise. Back matter includes a listing of the birds in this book (with additional information about their habitats and geographical locations), a Glossary, References, a Web Site, and an Author’s Note that explains how Ms. Judge came to write her book.

How does nonfiction get used by kids on a day-to-day basis? Basically it splits into two segments. Either they pick up a nonfiction tome for a class assignment or they do it out of love for the subject. And because there are as many distinct individual obsessions as there are fishies in the sea, no matter what the subject matter is you can count on some kid somewhere loving that topic to death (example: When I was a kid I wanted to know everything there was to know about albino animals… of which there was nada). Birds seem like a pretty straightforward choice, though. Usually a kid will obsess over a particular type of bird, rather than the species a whole, but I’m confident that if talked up correctly this book could prove as popular with the penguin and macaw fans out there as it is with kids assigned the standard “animal book” requirement in school.

Because when it comes down to it the book is a nice display of contrasts. Does any species have as many stunning examples of sheer variety as those in the world of birds? In a book like this it’s as important to make sure that the book is designed well as it is written and illustrated with truth and beauty. Judge’s title makes clever use of white space breaking up each page with a mix of size and shape. She must have planned the book out meticulously to know how to pair the long lengthy neck of the flamingo’s head and legs alongside the spiky head of the squat Common Merganser. The result is a book that feels as meticulously planned out as a graphic novel in terms of borders, action, image, and text.

Criticisms of the book I’ve heard haven’t made much of an impression on me but I figure I should make note of them just the same. One librarian I showed the book to felt vaguely unimpressed. To her mind the book isn’t doing anything particularly new or original. I’ll agree that we have a nice plethora of bird books in our science sections of the library, but even then Judge’s take stands out. Choosing to include watercolors rather than photographs gives the birds a friendly air without anthropomorphizing them. Breaking up the text also makes the book infinitely approachable and doesn’t intimidate the reluctant readers of the world. The topic of animal communication is out there, but birds specifically? Not so much on the children’s side of things. Personally, I would have liked to have seen some recommended reading titles at the end that were particularly kid-friendly. Judge’s list of resources do show that she’s done her research but some kid-friendly additions, particularly websites, would have been welcome.

Like a written companion to the documentary Winged Migration Judge’s title takes the wide swath of ornithology as a whole and breaks it down into small bite-sized pieces that kids can both read and enjoy. Lovely as a document, useful as a book, and a definite boon to the bird-lovers amongst us, count on Bird Talk to encourage just that. A whole lotta talking about birds.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

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Here’s a great video of Lita sketching penguins:

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth 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.