Monday, August 30, 2010

Elsie's Bird

By Jane Yolen
Illustrated by David Small
$17.99, ages 4-8, 40 pages

Worried she'll lose herself in the silence of the prairie, Elsie hides away in her Nebraska house until a pet canary gives her the courage to reach out to the wild world around her.

In this stellar collaboration by Caldecott winners Yolen and Small, a motherless girl is uprooted from the only home she knows and learns to connect to a new way of life by opening her senses to the subtle sounds of the grasslands.

Elsie never wanted to leave her home in Boston. She loved the raucous sound of gulls, the clop of horse hooves and the trill of city song birds. With pigtails flying, she would jump rope and sing the birds' songs back to them.

But after Elsie's mama died, Papa couldn't shake his sadness. He longed to get away from Boston and any reminders of what used to be, so he tells Elsie, his only child, that they will head west to find happiness again.

Elsie, however, isn't anxious to leave and she's surprised by how far they have to travel by train. As one day of travel slips into another, Elsie worries about what awaits her and wonders if she should have stayed behind with her grandparents.

But having lost her mother, Elsie couldn't have parted from Papa. So she tries to focus on her canary, Timmy Tune, who sings to her from his birdcage, though even he can't distract her from the clack of train wheels, which seems to go on and on.

When they finally arrive in Nebraska, their sod home is 10 miles from any town and looks as lonely as Elsie feels. "Here there is only grass and sky and silence," she writes to Nana and Nonny. At night the only thing Elsie hears is her own crying.

Curled up on a kitchen chair, Elsie is so heart sick she cannot hear the sounds swirling outside, the whistle of wind across the prairie or the gentle pulsing of crickets. She spends her days cooking and sewing, her only comfort, singing with Timmy.

Every time Papa hitches up the wagon, he tries to coax Elsie to come with him into town or at least walk out the door to see him off, but Elsie will never step past the threshold. She's too afraid she'll be swallowed up in the big open space.

Then one day while Papa's away, Elsie forgets to close the door of the birdcage and Timmy flies out a window into the prairie. Without thinking, Elsie runs out the door after him into a sea of grass until all that you can see is her hand holding the birdcage.

She sobs his name and cries out his favorite song, hoping he'll sing back, but no song is returned and Elsie sinks down by a small creek, hoarse and heavyhearted.

Then suddenly from overhead, she hears a familiar trill. Timmy circles in the sky and swoops down onto her shoulder. Her hands embrace his body, "not like a cage to keep him in," but with a gentle touch, and suddenly the prairie comes alive.

Looking up and around, Elsie hears blackbirds she never noticed before and calls back to them. She notices the burble of the creek and the ripple of the green-gold grass, and sees a flock of geese "spinning out cries like thread."

But then a frightened voice calls out her name from far, far way, and Elsie starts running back home, but what are those other sounds rippling through the prairie?

Yolen, author of the Caldecott Medal-winning Owl Moon, crafts another whisper-soft story of a child connecting with nature. As Elsie begins to trust her senses again, she is embraced by feelings of belonging that we all yearn to share.

Small's gentle, airy watercolors capture Elsie's hesitancy as she confronts the abrupt move from all that she's known, and makes us wish we could wander the plains where she has gone.

I left this story feeling as though a warm, gentle breeze had just blown through my hair and with the urge to find a prairie in the middle of nowhere to twirl around in.

Elsie's Bird marks Yolen's 300th book! Small won the Caldecott Medal for So You Want to Be President? and a Caldecott Honor for The Gardener.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like a great book. Thanks for sharing the review. I did a birthday blog post about her. 300th book? WOW!