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Birdsong

by Julie Flett

Hawks Kettle, Puffins Wheel: And Other Poems of Birds in Flight

by Susan Vande Griek and Mark Hoffmann (ill.)

Helen’s Birds

by Sara Cassidy and Sophie Casson (ill.)


Birds give earth-bound humans
plenty to marvel at, but they can also carry symbolic power, acting as sources of comfort or inspiration. Three new releases – two fiction and one non-fiction – encourage readers to look up, way up, and consider the multi-faceted beauty of birds.

Hawks Kettle, Puffins Wheel by Susan Vande Griek is part poetry collection, part educational tool featuring a dozen birds with unique flying behaviours (including Arctic terns that rise up suddenly – called a dread – and starlings that fly together in a murmuration).  Factual paragraphs sit alongside poems in double-page spreads – a unique premise that extends learning beyond ornithology to include a lesson on different rhetorical strategies. Unfortunately, the format leads to some redundancy. For instance, lines from “Eagles Cartwheel”  – “a pair of eagles / flying high / lock together, / talon finding talon, / then tumble / spiral / cartwheel towards earth” – sit next to a companion blurb that says the same thing, only more prosaically: “The male and female lock talons while high in the air and then tumble toward the earth.”

Illustrator Mark Hoffmann rises to the challenge of composing single images that work for both types of writing; his artwork, rendered in gouache and digital media, is engaging and practical. It captures the breathtaking power of the birds’ movements by constantly shifting perspectives, zooming out to show an entire flock or closing in on a snapping beak. The illustrations also visually define some potentially unfamiliar words like “flycatch” and “skein.”

While Vande Griek and Hoffmann’s picture book shows how fascinating birds are in themselves, these winged beauties often take on different meanings and significance in the context of a human story. In Helen’s Birds, a wordless graphic novel from B.C. author Sara Cassidy, a young girl named Saanvi befriends her elderly neighbour, Helen. The pair spend years building birdhouses and playing cards in Helen’s yard until the old woman’s sudden death. In a particularly affecting set of panels, illustrator Sophie Casson fills Saanvi’s bedroom with the red light of an ambulance siren, and the girl wakes to witness Helen being carried away in a stretcher. Saanvi grieves while watching the deterioration of Helen’s house, until she’s inspired to once again construct birdhouses, this time in her own backyard. The graphic-novel format works well for the change inherent in the story, including the physical maturation of the characters and the emotional shifts before and after Helen’s death. It creates a comforting clarity and clear path for readers, even in the midst of a shocking and unexpected loss.

Birdsong, by Cree-Métis artist Julie Flett, also features an intergenerational friendship between a young girl and an older woman that ends in the death of the latter. But while Helen’s Birds is about overcoming grief and taking specific action to preserve someone’s memory, Birdsong is about embracing the many natural cycles that run through our lives – including death.

A young girl named Katherena moves to a rural area and bonds with Agnes, her elderly neighbour. The two connect over a shared love of the outdoors, making art, and exchanging knowledge about cycles of the moon and the changing seasons. As Agnes starts to decline, Katherena begins to flourish in her new home, a juxtaposition that Flett presents sensitively through considered, gentle language. Katherena then prepares for Agnes’s passing by creating “a poem for her heart,” papering the dying woman’s wall with drawings of flowers and birds. The final pages help readers understand that Agnes’s memory will live on, not just in the birds but in all the positive parts of Katherena’s life: her art, her family, her home, and the moon.

Though the birds don’t figure largely in the text, Flett creates a series of dazzling sky stages for them – one for every season. The skies range from watery brown to faded coral to diluted green; the birds, all completely opaque, stand out in every spread. This makes Katherena’s final gesture for Agnes both a tender surprise and completely fitting.