Picture Book Round-Up: “He respects Owl, because you can’t help respecting anybody who can spell TUESDAY, even if he doesn’t spell it right.” *

h1 August 23rd, 2007 by jules

Three new picture books. Three owls: One nestling into a home, one throwing a tantrum, the other rather grumpy-looking and just trying to get some sleep already. Let’s get right to it then . . .

White Owl, Barn Owl
by Nicola Davies
and illustrated by Michael Foreman
April 2007
(library copy)

It always makes me happy to see a new title illustrated by the mighty prolific Michael Foreman. And his illustrations in this one are simply enthralling (look at that cover). In this book by zoologist and author Nicola Davies, a young girl sets out with her grandpa on a frosty winter day to make an owl nest box. Carrying the box for the nest across “the tussocky field,” they place it high in an old oak tree. As they wait and wait to see their owl, the girl learns a bit about owls (what barn owl pellets are, the probability that the owl will come to the nest tonight, etc.) . . . And in what looks like hand-written text on many of the illustrations, we are treated to some more fun facts (“Barn owls have favorite perches that they come back to again and again” and “In winter, barn owls have to fly miles every night to hunt enough food, so it’s hard to find them then”). Finally, one spring night, they spot a pale face in the box (in a lovely illustration by Foreman, which he has agreed to share with our readers this Sunday, ’cause I love this book so much I just had to ask). Eventually, the girl gets a close-up look at the beautiful, pale owl:

I could see the tiny ruff of feathers around its face, like stiff lace. I could see the speckled browns on its back. I could see the shine of its big dark eyes. I could have reached out to touch its velvety softness.

And then “it raised its wings like an angel and took off” (another eye-popping illustration that you just have to see for yourself), as we learn from that small, handwritten-esque font that owls’ wing feathers are especially soft so that they can move through the air silently and fly up to their prey without being heard. In the end, they get a nice surprise, learning that the baby owl has a family in that nest box they so lovingly created. Foreman’s blue shades of night are simply luscious, and there is as much wonder and delight in his watercolor and pastel paintings as the girl and her grandpa possess for the owl they managed to see (this is her first sighting of an owl, so the story is infused with a real sense of wonder and awe). You just must see his depiction of the bird in flight. Wow. And the simple facts about owls are merged so seamlessly into the hushed, gently-paced story that you hardly realize you’re getting a zoological lesson in the common barn owl. I stumbled upon this title and am grateful I did, reminding me that Foreman always impresses and I need to do better about keeping track of his new releases.

“I’m Not Scared!”
by Jonathan Allen
June 2007
(library copy)

This follow-up to Jonathan Allen’s 2006 Hyperion title, “I’m Not Cute!” (reviewed here by Eisha last year) — in which Baby Owl tried to convince everyone that he was a huge and sleek and scary hunting machine only to have his mama take him home and tuck him into bed — works for all the same reasons that the first one did. I mean, let’s start with the cover: Look at how terrified our dear, stubborn, furry, little cartoonesque-guy is (I’m trying really hard not to say “wittle, wittle” and “puddin’ head” here), yet he’s insisting he’s not. That tension that made the first book so funny is on display here once again. And it’s carried throughout the book: He’s out for a stroll in the moonlit woods at night (with Owly, of course — always holding his little Owly), and at each and every turn an animal friend (Badger, Bear, Bat) scares the bejeebus out of him, made clear by his facial expressions and body language. “Don’t be scared,” they tell him kindly, reminding him it’s past his bedtime, it’s too dark to be in the woods, and he shouldn’t be alone in the woods at night. “I’m NOT scared!” he tells them, adding that he’s an owl, for crying out loud, and they stay up all night, can see perfectly fine in the dark, and . . .

“I SHOULD be out in the woods at night. It’s what owls DO!”

(Bigger font and all) . . . And, yes, there’s another tantrum in this title, Baby Owl protesting being seen as wee and helpless, as toddlers sometimes do. And this time his Papa comes to get him, take him home, and tuck him in after a story, whispering to him that it’s okay to be scared of the dark sometimes (“Papa means you, Owly,” he tells his stuffed animal). Just like the last title, it’s spot-on in capturing the strong will of toddlers — and their fears. But, talk about the merging of text and illustrations — Librarians, take note: Baby Owl’s expressions must be seen up close, or the story fails (as the text makes no mention at all of his fear, and it doesn’t need to do so). This was read in a decently-sized story time I attended recently, and Baby Owl couldn’t be seen by many, and the reader made no effort to tell us how the little guy was responding to everyone in the forest. I was sorely disappointed in the book ’til I got my hands on a copy and saw Baby Owl myself — his wide-eyed fear, his bravado, and all the personality he’s generally loaded with, as a result of Jonathan Allen’s expressive paint strokes.

Ah, isn’t it nice to see Baby Owl and Owly again? Perfect toddler tales.

Whooo’s There?
by Mary Serfozo
and illustrated by Jeffrey Scherer
Random House Books
for Young Readers

July 2007
(review copy)

This is a simple tale with simple rhymes about an inquisitive owl who keeps track of the creatures trekking through the woods at night. Owl identifies a revealing characteristic of each animal he sees, asking “Whooo!” before he sees each one: “‘Whooo! . . . Who has turned on the light?’ Fireflies glowed, a bright show in the night” and “‘Whooo’s there?’ said Old Owl. ‘Who can scurry like that?’ ‘It’s Rat,’ said the rat, ‘and still faster than Cat.'” I think this one could do with a bit more narrative momentum, perhaps helped by building anticipation with altogether different page turns (such as, revealing the animal on the following page, letting young children try to decide themselves which animal Owl’s spotted next). But, all in all, no bother — because it’s still a fun preschool read, and it rather screams Good Book for Fall and Even Halloween. There’s a lot of humor here for young children in the illustrations by Jeffrey Scherer, and there is something funny to me about Old Owl’s face, the disgruntled Grumpy Bird in him, as the poor guy’s probably just looking for a moment to himself (and then, on the back end pages, just trying to sleep in the morning, as a happy bird is chirping nearby, Old Owl glaring at him through one opened eye), as if to say this is my domain. Scherer’s night-time skylines, with the trees silhouetted before us and “{m}oonlight . . . slipping between the tall trees” while “{d}eep shadows stir as leaves lift in the breeze” are nicely done in their bold color and simplicity. No clutter, no excess here. There is a very polished look to his art work that, oddly enough, leaves me craving more imperfections (wobbly tells me so much more sometimes), but I suppose that falls into the Personal Style category.

All in all, a satisfactory bed-time, Autumn Time, Halloween-esque read for very young children, who I think will get a kick out of Old Owl.

* * * * * * *

* A.A. Milne

ADDENDUM: Hey, JJK is contributing to the owl scene, as of Tuesday . . .

5 comments to “Picture Book Round-Up: “He respects Owl, because you can’t help respecting anybody who can spell TUESDAY, even if he doesn’t spell it right.” *”

  1. Oh, wow…I love that painting he’s contributing. I wonder if they would take outside bids…

  2. Wow, Jules, you are really rocking the picture book reviews this week. Are you *sure* no one’s put anything in the coffee???

  3. Thanks, Adrienne. Nope, nothing in my coffee. If I start to slack on PB reviews, I feel very remiss, as they’re my very favorite thing.

    But I am drinking coffee now as I read your comment. Are you surprised? I usually am drinking it, I guess.

    I hope you had a good trip, Adrienne.

    Sara, I have no idea about outside bids on that piece of artwork. But you can ask JJK. He’s the nicest guy evah.

  4. Oh, thanks, I did have a good trip. I feel like I have my head screwed on properly again or at least as properly as it ever gets with my head. One can’t expect miracles, but I seem to have found my center and energy and all that.

  5. Jules,

    I love the books I have that were written by Nicola Davies. The owl book sounds great. Thanks for the review.

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