Thursday, December 1, 2011

Thunder Birds

I vividly remember the first bald eagle I ever saw in nature.  Like many of us, I grew up in a time when the bald eagle was endangered (it became endangered in 1967), so I never expected I would see one in the wild.  About ten years ago, a friend was driving along the highway here in Montana, and I was in the passenger seat.  She said "Look there!" and pointed out my window, just as the eagle took flight.  I will never forget that amazing and majestic sight.  It took me by surprise as the eagle soared above us, riding a wind current.  It was an experience I will never forget.

Thunder Birds focuses on nature's flying predators, as the subtitle of this book calls them.  Beginning on the very first page, Arnosky explains how he sought out these birds in wildlife parks, reserves and sanctuaries across the United States.  Just like my experience with that bald eagle, Jim Arnosky loves the birds of prey.  You can hear it in the reverence and respect in his tone as he describes their habits . 

This book feels very personal to me.  While Arnosky has written about his research strategies and his family's involvement in his research in books such as Monster Hunt, Arnosky's introduction begins with his wife, Deanna.  They have traveled together to find all these birds and paint them.  The book is broken up into sections, and almost every section has a personal experience included.  His heart is clearly in this.  Arnoksy tells readers about the time he held a wild eagle by its strong feet so it wouldn't attack while a biologist mended its wing.  He also recounts time spent in the Everglades, monitoring the carcass of an alligator that Black Vultures fed on for a week.  These stories bring the birds to life for young readers, who will definitely be fascinated by Arnosky's experiences.

This book is written with young readers in mind.  Each section includes a narrative page on the group of birds featured, which might include owls, herons and egrets, vultures and others.  The narrative section includes Arnosky's compelling recollections as well as additional information about the group in general.  For instance, on the page about owls, he describes their feathers, and how they allow owls to take prey without any sound.  Then he remembers an owl swooping down on him from behind, without him ever hearing it coming.  It allows readers to envision how they would feel as the owl's prey.

There are four fold-out pages with life-size paintings of different groups.  Each of these fold-out pages includes specific information about the different types of birds within that group.  Each type is identified ("Great Gray Owl") and then Arnosky lists their length, wingspan and their habitat in the United States.  The way the information on the fold-out pages dovetails with the information on the narrative pages is impeccable.  There are small bites of facts for readers who will want to know the nitty-gritty about a particular bird.  There are also facts presented in the longer text to give readers a more overall picture of the group.  It's perfect for readers of any interest level.

The pictures in this book are incredible too.  As I've mentioned, the fold-out pages are almost all life-size birds.  Arnosky makes a point of mentioning if the bird is a different size so readers will be able to envision them correctly (the bald eagle is painted at half-size, for instance).  They are close-up and amazingly realistic.  I was amazed at how real these birds seem.  He has also painted them in their own surroundings - you see the Black Vulture standing possessively on that dead alligator, although there is no gore.  But Arnosky also includes spot illustrations with smaller details of each group, done in pencil.  The loon is shown diving under the water to catch a fish, and on the same page there is a closer look at the loon's sturdy foot.  Notes about these smaller pictures are done in Arnosky's writing, making these look as if they were taken from his sketchbook.  There are also very interesting shadowed looks at different birds' wingspans and how they might look from below.  I think these help make these birds identifiable for children, who will be scanning the skies after reading this.

All of this makes for a very strong book.  It is beautifully illustrated, and the diversity of both the illustrations and the information will make this appealing to readers across the spectrum.  I can see preschoolers looking agape at the enormous birds while older siblings and parents learn more from the text.  Arnosky has included some unusual back matter.  The author's note has a comprehensive list of sites he visited for the book, encouraging readers to visit the birds of prey.  There is a bibliography (with two more of Arnosky's titles included) and then a conversion chart to the metric system for the lengths and wingspans.  This is the perfect book to whet a reader's appetite for the thunder birds.  Hopefully, after reading it, their interest will take flight.

Note: I am on the Cybils Nonfiction Picture Book panel, but this blog post does not represent the committee's thoughts about the book.  It only represents my personal ideas and thoughts.

Thunder Birds: Nature's Flying Predators.  Sterling, 2011.

borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library

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