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Tanna’s Owl

by Rachel Qitsualik-Tinsley and Sean Qitsualik-Tinsley; Yong Ling Kang (ill.)

Hey Little Rockabye: A Lullaby For Pet Adoption

by Buffy Sainte-Marie and Ben Hodson (ill.)

Legendary Cree singer, activist, and animal lover Buffy Sainte-Marie launches not only her first children’s book but also a new song with Hey Little Rockabye. Throughout her career, the Oscar-winning composer has powerfully told the stories of underdogs; in this lyrical picture book, Sainte-Marie shares the personal welcome she sings to all of her rescue animals when bringing them home.

Out for a walk with her family, a little girl notices an animal shelter van and spies a floppy-eared, waggy-tailed pup in a cage. The concerned child can’t stop thinking about the abandoned doggy in the window. Back at home, she launches a campaign of compassion, plastering the refrigerator door with crayon drawings of the homeless pooch shivering outside in the rain and sitting alone behind bars, complete   with tears falling from big, sad, pick-me eyes. The girl’s emotional plea works, and her parents agree to a pet-shelter adoption.

Peterborough, Ontario, illustrator Ben Hodson’s warm narrative scenes complement Sainte-Marie’s heartstring-tugging stanzas: “Were you born on a cold winter day? / Are you a poor little orphan? / Did somebody throw you away?” While the calming, rhythmic refrain – “Hey hey little rockabye, / Hey hey little darling, / Hey hey little rockabye, / You got somebody loves you”  – offers a soothing sense of security, there’s also a spontaneous, improvisational feel to this catchy love song. Readers are encouraged to download Sainte-Marie’s recorded version or play the song themselves using sheet music that is included with the text.

At the end of the book, the author shares a photo album, “Buffy and her Animals,” complete with images of her Siamese cat, named Anderson Cooper, and her goats, Captain Kid and Lola. The author’s note suggests readers personalize the lines of the book/song for their own individual pets.    

In Tanna’s Owl, when an abandoned raptor is rescued and brought home, the child protagonist is initially nonplussed and wonders, “Why did Father get me such an ugly thing?” Based on Burt Award–winning, Inuit-Cree author Rachel Qitsualik-Tinsley’s childhood memories of growing up on Baffin Island, this outstanding picture book shares essential teachings on the importance of responsibility, patience, and respect.    

There’s no lovey-dovey sentimentality expressed when Tanna gazes at the globular, grey-brown creature: “Its beaky mouth seemed wide enough to swallow its own head.” But, upon closer consideration, she does allow that “it’s somehow cute.” She soon realizes that baby owls don’t hunger for affection as much as cry out for raw meat. So the child, who is tasked with caring for the animal, must wake up at four in the morning to catch lemmings. Tanna names her charge Ukpik (the Inuktitut word for owl) and resolutely feeds and cleans up after the messy eater and prodigious pooper.

The altruistic responsibility of caring for another living being is unequivocally conveyed.  Ukpik demands a lot without offering much in return. After being summoned by yet another round of foot stomping and beak chomping, Tanna sardonically quips, “At least she can communicate.”

Tanna develops a trusting relationship with her owl, and Toronto artist Yong Ling Kang’s winsome illustrations capture a stirring image of the young girl gently and confidently holding onto the bird’s talons while it spreads its wings in pretend flight. This distinct combination of grace, strength, and delicacy is also shown in the pockets of bright yellow Arctic poppies (“golden petals like frozen sunlight”) sprouting up beside rocks on the expansive landscape.

Come fall, Tanna must leave her community to attend school. While she’s worried about the young owlet, she’s relieved to be free of her early morning chores. When she returns home, Ukpik is gone. With simply stated words of wisdom, her father explains, “The owl didn’t belong to us. It had to fly free.” In a tender ending, Tanna comes to fully understand that “beauty is worth some work.”