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Abby’s Birds

by Ellen Schwartz; Sima Elizabeth Shefrin, illus.

Picture book illustration can, at its finest, transport you right into the heart of a story’s emotion and momentum. How anyone can achieve that transmogrification with the lumpish medium of Plasticine is an artistic mystery. Toronto-based artist Barbara Reid obviously owns the key: in Fox Walked Alone, an oblique approach to the story of Noah’s ark, Reid has created her masterpiece.

Fox, a lithe russet bundle of energy and gleaming curiosity, “walked alone, he liked it that way.” But one morning, he’s enticed from his lair at dawn by a restless stirring in the air. Impelled on a cross-country journey by forces he can’t understand, Fox is followed by two clownish ravens who mock his efforts, and then bumps into a caravan of other animals on the same trek. Reid has never been more adept at shaping her clay into movement (lumbering bears, scampering mice) and mood. The vast landscape is a nuanced character in itself: “The sky was odd, the wind was wrong” goes the narrative in simple rhymed couplets, while the illustrations convey a world of turbulent clouds, darkening vistas, and mounting urgency.

The story stands on its own, but a reader who knows the Biblical tale of Noah will pick up another whole level of meaning embedded in the magnificently lively pictures. As the animals find their way through a ruined desert city (which must be the walled city of Nineveh – impossible not to think of its very recent pillaging), one is reminded of “man’s violence” that God was punishing by the flood. Surely those are streaks of blood (low-key enough to be unnoticeable by the very young) on the ramparts of the deserted city, and of course those are arrows piercing the howdahs on frightened stampeding elephants who form part of the animal procession. Even the birds (the taunting ravens, the two doves freed from marketplace cages by Fox) will play a role, we know, in the story of the Flood.

There’s even a subtle emotional trajectory to Fox’s personal story. As he reaches the ark, he is greeted by another fox, and the two of them joyfully leapfrog over two irritated hippos as they race up the gangplank. On the last page, we see the two foxes gazing hopefully at the postdiluvian rainbow. These are brilliant double-page illustrations, with vibrant emotional expressiveness, fascinatingly observed detail, and energizing shifts in perspective.

Another picture book artist has used a more common medium, paper collage, in a bid for the simplicity of line and tactile immediacy that will reach most directly to a child’s imagination. In Abby’s Birds, by British Columbians Ellen Schwartz and illustrator Sima Elizabeth Shefrin, the story’s many dimensions – cross-cultural, multi-generational, and cycle-of-life – are well supported by the artistic materials. A soft rice paper background scattered with a few scraps of feathers and straw lies behind the prose narrative, while deeper-toned blues and greens provide the backdrop for the full-page facing illustrations. Abby, a little girl, moves into a new house and almost at once is introduced to a fresh perspective. “Are you my new neighbour?” she asks wrinkled old Mrs. Naka next door. “No, you are my new neighbour,” replies Mrs. Naka. “I have lived here a lifetime.”

Together, the child and her aged friend observe a robin family in a nearby tree. They even offer combings of their hair to the nest-building parents, and Mrs. Naka helps Abby deal with the death of a baby robin that falls from the tree. The other fledglings are safe and strong, she assures Abby. And the next year they will raise their own babies. “New babies every year?” “Year after year. Always.”

It’s a familiar story in books for the young – the consolation of nature’s renewal – but freshly conveyed here through the gentle, uncluttered vitality of the collage medium. Mrs. Naka teaches Abby to make origami birds, and when the old woman has a fall and is taken to hospital, Abby prepares for her return by decorating the autumnally bare tree with a flock of “tori,” or origami birds.

The book’s lesson is aptly understated, both in words and pictures, the softly glowing tones of indigo, forest green, russet, and orange gently reinforcing both the sadness and optimism. Because they offer the imaginative stimulation of semi-abstraction, the pictures encourage the reader to enter the spirit of the text: affectionate, unsentimental, and humane.

Both these books embody the wonders of nature in their art, in a lovely and rewarding synthesis of meanings, both visual and verbal.