Birdsong, illustrated and written by Julie Flett, published by Greystone Kids, ISBN: 978-1771644730.
Song of the River, illustrated by Kimberly Andrews, written by Joy Cowley, Gecko Press, ISBN: 978-1776572533.
As the end of the year swiftly approaches, you can start hearing the book buzz about year-end best of lists and awards talk. Many in the children’s books world are taking part in Mock Caldecott programs or leading young students through discussions about possible Caldecott winners. And part of this discussion brings up the melancholy reality that some beautifully illustrated books won’t be eligible. People dub them “CaldeNotts.” In order to be eligible for a Caldecott, the illustrator must have some kind of residency tie to the United States. I, like many librarians and/or teachers and/or picture book fans, have encountered a breathtakingly well-illustrated title and say “ooh, hope the Caldecott committee notices this one” only to go “d’oh!” when I read the artist’s bio. Now many of these illustrators are eligible for other awards in their home countries. For example, the great Canadian illustrator Julie Flett (illustrator/author of Birdsong and another 2019 beaut The Girl and the Wolf, the latter written by Katherena Vermette) won Canada’s 2017 Governor General’s Literary Award for When We Were Alone (written by David Robertson) and is the three time recipient of the Christie Harris Illustrated Children’s Literature Award (for residents of British Colombia or Yukon).
Birdsong is a book of quiet beauty and humane heartbreak. A rather sensitive, introverted Cree girl moves with her mother to a new country home. This child takes in and notices the nature surrounding her: the trees, the field covered with snowdrops, the peeps and ribbits of outside creatures. Her dog Ôhô (meaning owl in Cree) by her side, she befriends an elderly next door neighbor named Agnes. As the seasons change, the two spend quality time together in places such as Agnes’ garden and art studio where she works on a round, bright pot. The two bond while talking about waxing and waning moons. The girl tells Agnes about the Cree seasons. As winter turns into spring, Agnes’ health deteriorates and the girl cheers the now-bedridden woman up with a beautiful present: drawings she has made of birds. Flett’s art (rendered in pastel and pencil, and composited digitally) matches her evocative, moody text with great clarity. Each illustration conveys emotion without feeling treacly: the sadness of moving, the serene wonder of country living, the warm connection between the girl and Agnes, the tenderness of the girl’s gift, the sorrow of losing a friend. Flett knows when to employ a double page spread or white space for maximum visual impact. Her use of color (greens, browns, light blues, and so on) reflects the season she depicts. Every image feels tender and poetic.
Birdsong makes a good companion with Song of the River from New Zealand. The copyright date says the author Joy Cowley wrote the book in 1994. However, Kimberly Andrews’ eye-popping illustrations are from 2019. I could see Cam, the young mountain boy starring in Song, becoming good friends with the young girl from Birdsong. They both seem like quiet souls who take stock in the natural world and wonder about life’s bigger questions. Song starts with Cam hanging out with his grandfather and telling his elder that he wishes he could “see the sea.” The grandfather replies that one day this wish will be fulfilled; they will go out together. Just when the reader expects the two to make a journey to the sea together, Cowley throws a curve at the reader. This becomes a solo adventure with the boy noticing and then following a trickle of water running through pine trees. The water speaks to the lad, instructing him to “Come with me. Come with me. I will take you to the sea.” The boy does so, and the trickle leads to other trickles, and then a waterfall, and a creek, a stream, a river, all the way to the sea. The world becomes more crowded as Cam journeys. Robertson’s art here shimmers and shines. She serves up misty shadowy images, depicts light reflecting in the water, plunges under a river to show us some frogs with sun rays breaking the surface. She excels at capturing the shifts not only in the physical landscapes but those going on inside Cam’s mind. The book is both an exterior and interior journey. And it’s simply spellbinding.