Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Monday, April 11, 2022

Children's Picture Books about Birds, Part 1

Now that I have a baby grandson, I’m paying a lot more attention to children’s picture books than I have since my own kids were little. I can’t help but get irritated by false information that turns up even in some of my favorite books, which may be charming but contribute to confusion about important elements of bird life—such as referring to a nest as an adult bird’s “home” or “bed” when, if you really must use a human analogy, a nest is more of an egg incubator and then a bassinet or crib with the adult bird serving as the heat source. The nest does double-duty, also serving as a highchair for feeding the young. The place adult birds sleep (when not serving as a heat source) is called a roost.    

It's not that I need realism or technical facts in children’s books about birds. My all-time favorite picture book is Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hatches the Egg, a ridiculous and utterly impossible tale that I love nonetheless. Dr. Seuss makes it clear that Mayzie the lazy bird’s nest is for incubating her egg, even if in this case it’s Horton the Elephant who faithfully sits on it for almost a year. In the end, when the egg hatches into an “elephant bird” with ears and a tail and a trunk just like Horton’s, Dr. Seuss makes it clear this is fantasy, saying:   

And it should be, it should be, it SHOULD be like that!
Because Horton was faithful! He sat and he sat!
He meant what he said
And he said what he meant…
And they sent him home
One hundred percent!

Walter reads Horton Hatches the Egg to Chuckie Chickadee

A fun story that doesn’t pretend to be possible can be just fine with me. But I’m not fine with another old classic that happens to be one of Walter’s favorite books right now, Are You My Mother? I never had that one in my house when my own kids were little—I didn’t like kids imagining that an incubating mother bird would ever fly off knowing her egg was about to hatch unless the father bird was right there to take over. Even the laziest bird ever, Mayzie in Horton Hatches the Egg, doesn’t leave her nest until Horton promises to take over. In Are You My Mother? the mother bird leaves the hatching egg alone because she thinks the baby will be hungry when it hatches, when real newly hatched baby birds have a yolk sac that prevents them from getting hungry for at least a few hours. And maybe even more important, both parents take care of the chicks in most songbird species. Hatching eggs are simply never left unattended except in dire situations. Father songbirds play such an important role in raising young that not even mentioning the father’s existence in Are You My Mother? is off-putting and frustrating for me.   

I did occasionally read stories to my own kids that were marred with frustrating falsehoods, but I always made a point of explaining the misleading inaccuracies the way my kids started doing when another kid or grownup suggested that people had ever seen living dinosaurs. We enjoyed imagining that people today could spend time with living dinosaurs thanks to time travel, cloning them from fossil tissue, or an enormous hen’s egg hatching into a Triceratops named Uncle Beazley, but in the same way that my kids were sticklers for accuracy about the different timelines for dinosaurs and humans, I’m a stickler for at least some accuracy about bird lives.   

I’m also fussy about illustrations of birds in picture books. Seussian pictures are fine with me, as was the babushka-wearing mother bird in Are You My Mother? but I cannot abide hyper-realistic appearing illustrations that distort natural beings. I see most of these online—absurdly rainbow-colored owls that were clearly photoshopped, and ridiculously plush hand-crafted birds labeled as if they depict real birds. I always feel sad when friends share them thinking they’re real. Nature is plenty good enough.