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Book Reviews

Birds from Head to Tail

by Kwanchai Moriya (ill.); Stacey Roderick

My First Book of Canadian Birds

by Andrea Miller; Angela Doak (ill.)

Robert Bateman: The Boy Who Painted Nature

by Margriet Ruurs; Robert Bateman

Nurtured in childhood, an emergent fascination with birds, animals, and the natural world can last a lifetime. Three new informational picture books foster outdoor curiosity and encourage close inspection for budding birders and naturalists.

My First Book of Canadian Birds by Andrea Miller is an uncluttered catalogue for the very young birdwatcher. A casual conversation between a mother and child includes the invitation, “Look up in the sky, sweetheart. A bird!” The natural follow-up question – “What kind of bird is it?” – precipitates a log of 14 avian species, from the backyard red-winged blackbird to the Atlantic puffin. Simple, declarative sentences introduce each: “This bird drums on trees with its beak. It thinks insects are tasty!  It’s a Hairy Woodpecker.” The brief descriptions have relatable comparisons (“eggs are as tiny as a baby’s toes”) and sensory appeal (“This bird is the colour of a lemon”).

Halifax photographer and artist Angela Doak’s illustrations closely follow the text’s tour-guide lead. As in her board book, 2017’s Atlantic Animal ABC, Doak’s fetching collages are crafted with precision out of recycled greeting cards, junk mail, calendars, and other ephemera. The wide, field-view scenes capture fleeting glimpses as through a binocular lens.

Ornithological exploration soars up a level with Birds from Head to Tail by Toronto editor and author Stacey Roderick. This latest addition to the crowd-pleasing Head to Tail series (which has also featured dinosaurs, ocean animals, and bugs) makes an entertaining, interactive game out of bird identification. Child-friendly trivia questions are posited beside eye-popping, close-up visual clues: “What bird has legs like this?” accompanies an iconic pair of long, pink, spindly crossed limbs. Some birds’ body parts are trickier to identify, such as the bushy, pear-shaped body of the kiwi and the turquoise, webbed appendages of the blue-footed booby. All is revealed on the page turn, along with a pithy paragraph that explains the purpose of the highlighted body part. Words like “migration” and “prey” are breezily
defined along the way.

Kwanchai Moriya’s brilliantly hued, cut-paper collages are multi-dimensional. Many birds appear in motion, including a hummingbird collecting nectar and a peacock flaunting his tail. The panoramic backgrounds are enhanced with digitally created photographed textures, adding realism like rough tree bark and sandy beaches.

Veteran children’s author and educator Margriet Ruurs presents a biographical, picture-book portrait of the artist as a young ecologist in Robert Bateman: The Boy Who Painted Nature. The immersive, documentary-style narration describes “Bobby” in his natural environment. Readers are introduced to an extraordinarily discerning child who studies the “dangling shapes” of tadpoles, notices subtleties between shades of green in the ash leaves and moss growing in the ravine, and paints faithful, meticulous reproductions of what he sees. Bobby grows up “into Bob, and then into Robert”; his exploratory art education continues as he travels the world to study animals in their natural habitats.

Bateman’s notebooks, family-album photographs, and ultra-realistic artwork share as much of the storytelling duties as the text, offering a visual display of his artistic process. There is the behind-the-scenes thrill of peeking at Bateman’s coil-bound, black-and-white preliminary sketches, along with a candid, on-location photo, showing the artist sitting on a rocky shore, calmly watching a penguin waddle right up beside him. Bateman’s 1985 acrylic painting, King Penguins, completes the retrospective. The many fine details in the images alone are a commentary on his work ethic, as well as his respect and passion for his subjects.

Bateman’s conservationist philosophy comes across clearly: “Robert brought animals to life for those who would never get to see them.” His advice to his own grandchildren is offered as a rallying cry for us all: “Pay attention to details of nature.