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The Birdman

by François Thisdale (ill.); Troon Harrison

Famous Canadian activist Alexander Milton Ross, known as “Birdman,” was an ornithologist and medical doctor who claimed to have assisted enslaved people escaping from the American South. Award-winning author Troon Harrison and veteran Montreal illustrator François Thisdale’s picture book begins with Ross’s birth in Belleville, Upper Canada, 1832; opening spreads describe his idyllic childhood. He passionately learns about flora and fauna from nature and books. When a merchant ship arrives at the harbour and his father invites a group of escaped Black people to the family home, Ross’s life changes. He watches his mother, Frederika, gently cleanse a woman’s wound and listens to stories of brutality. Ross feels profound “admiration for [their] determination and courage.” His compassion takes hold and he readily embraces the abolitionist cause.

Thisdale enhances his soft, muted paintings with digital tools, occasionally punctuated with realistic textures – a portion of fabric, a loaf of bread, a brick facade. Clothing, architecture, and furnishings are rendered in exquisite detail, authentic to the time. On close inspection, many spreads include antique maps. The faint outline of lakes, rivers, borders, and place names form discrete overlays, which add interest and depth to the pages.

Harrison writes eloquently from the start, engaging readers and evoking clear images. Her meticulous descriptions, smoothly flowing text, and dramatic anecdotes create an inspiring story of high principles and steadfast morals. Those seeking books for children that promote “values” and integrity will find Harrison’s story offers a fine model. Frederika advises her son to “Treat others in the same way that you want to be treated.” Later his mother adds, “You need to leave the world some better than you found it.” These form the key values Ross comes to live by.

The back matter includes extensive historical notes, a two-page timeline, and a list of visual sources. The notes present more accomplishments, good deeds, special honours, and testimonials about Ross from an American senator and a Quaker poet.

While it’s undeniable that Ross was passionate about abolishing slavery, the book doesn’t mention that scholars believe he often exaggerated his own achievements. In fact, historians of the Underground Railroad suspect he embellished his role in aiding slaves. His own memoirs appear to be the sole source for his “daring” accounts – and books that lend credence to these tales may be buying into what is essentially a myth. There were some white heroes during this time, but, in the case of Ross, the truth is murky. Some readers will be troubled by this, and by the book’s parallels to a “white saviour” tale, in which white characters are celebrated for their courage in rescuing enslaved Black people.