Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Puffling Patrol

If you know this blog at all, you know how much I love children's nonfiction.  And I'll say something here that I've said before: I am a fairly recent convert to children's nonfiction.  I thought of it as something I should read to round out my blog, not because I had any strong feeling for it.  And over the last two years (including a stint as a Cybils judge on a picture book nonfiction panel), I find myself really struggling not to focus my blog almost exclusively on children's nonfiction.  There are so many great books out there.  So just know for every book I've written about, I've read two or three other great ones.  This book, however, is one you can't live without.

I first saw this book at our local library and was drawn to the sweet puffling on the cover.  Then I saw that it was written and illustrated by Ted and Betsy Lewin.  This husband and wife are both Caldecott Honor winners, which is an amazing thing.  Their illustrative styles are so different, and I was interested enough to take a closer look at their collaboration.  I am always fascinated by collaborations - picture books, nonfiction, chapter books.  I love to look at how different authors (or illustrators) "fit" together - one of my favorite collaborations being Will Grayson, Will Grayson (John Green and David Levithan).  You can hear each author's voice yet also see the overarching plot and themes.  Each author's contribution meshes seamlessly.

This book was strong from the very first page.  The Lewins created maps to orient readers immediately.  The larger map is a close-up of the island of Heimaey (off the coast of Iceland), where the story takes place, giving landmarks to help readers picture where specific events take place.  A smaller map shows the entire world, with Heimaey and Iceland shown in perspective to help readers see how small this island really is.  There is a note on the facing page describing the Lewins' interest in this island and its importance for the puffin population.

Then the text begins.  One of the most notable things is how well the Lewins are able to incorporate facts into their travel narrative.  The Lewins have come to Iceland in August, when young puffins (called pufflings) are ready to venture out on their own for the first time.  The adult puffins have already abandoned their pufflings to return to their lives on the ocean.  The pufflings have to begin to fly, but their wings aren't always strong, and they become disoriented by the lights of the small town on Heimaey.  They fly down onto the streets, and are unable to take off again.  The pufflings can become victims of predators like dogs, or be hit by cars since they are so helpless.  This is where the children of Heimaey come in to help.  They are enlisted into the Puffling Patrol, and go out at night to rescue pufflings before they are injured.

The Lewins introduce readers to Dáni and Erna, eight year old twins who are in the Puffling Patrol.  It is compelling to see the rescue efforts through these children's eyes.  The twins are all business, capable and confident in their task.  They stay up late during their stint as patrol, and their father tells the Lewins that Dáni "rescued twenty-seven pufflings in one night", so you can visualize the importance of their task.

While the children are the eyes of the story, the entire island is focused on rescuing and caring for many kinds of seabirds.  The Lewins go out on a boat with researchers who are monitoring puffin burrows.  They visit the Natural History Museum to see the pufflings measured and weighed before being released out into the ocean.  At the time of year when pufflings are taking the first flights, the island is dedicated to puffin rescue.  It is rewarding and dramatic when Dáni and Erna release the pufflings into the ocean.

Ted Lewin creates full-page watercolor paintings, and the most dramatic illustrations (the cover picture of a puffling caught in a spotlight, the pufflings being thrown up and out into the sea) are his.  The colors are rich and saturated.  There are black volcanic beaches created by sparkling lava, warm red light shining on wet pavement, an azure blue ocean.  But for all the drama of his paintings, Betsy Lewin gives the puffins personality.  She has created smaller spot illustrations that add details to the text.  One of my favorite illustrations accompanies text about the researchers who must scale a cliff to see puffin burrows.  When they return to the boat where the Lewins are watching, they must leap in while the small Zodiac bobs on waves, since there is no dock.  Betsy Lewin shows a researcher leaping wildly (and almost missing the boat) while they watch.  It is funny and terrifying at the same time.  She also provides small closeups of a puffling gulping a fish and other endearing puffling activities.  Their different styles add interest and diversity to this fascinating text.

And you know one of my requirements for strong nonfiction is high-quality back matter, and this book is exemplary.  I've already mentioned the maps and explanatory note at the beginning of the book.  There are also two pages of Atlantic puffin facts (along with more of Betsy Lewin's expressive illustrations).  The Lewins have included a page on a five month long volcano eruption on the island of Heimaey which caused total evacuation of the island.  It is a fascinating addition to the story of the pufflings.  There is also information about the declining puffin population, a bibliography, and a glossary and pronunciation guide...whew!  I also loved the note with the authors' sources, with a citation for Bruce McMillan's Nights of the Pufflings, which first introduced this island to readers.

This book is beautifully constructed from start to finish.  I loved the topic (who doesn't love puffins?), and I loved how integral the children of Heimaey are to the survival of the puffins.  It is a story that children will relate to, with plenty of facts to encourage further research.  I hope this one will be considered come awards season.

Puffling Patrol.  Ted and Betsy Lewin.  Lee & Low Books, 2012.

borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library

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