Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 06 Dec 2015

I'm sorry but I really don't do bird books....................or do I?

We recently visited some long-standing friends of ours who are very keen on ornithology - although they might laugh at me for using such a grand name for their interest. They probably think of themselves as bird-watchers or just plain 'interested in birds' - to be honest I don't know what the right terminology is. Anyway, they were kind enough to say that they looked at the Letterpress Project website on a regular basis and, besides being grateful and delighted by this, I felt I should apologise for the fact that I don't really have much interest in birds and that they were unlikely to find much here to satisfy that interest.


Since that visit, books featuring birds on my shelves have been haunting me. Almost everywhere I look I find birds. First to catch my eye was Ted Hughes's Crow - OK, not strictly a bird book but anyone who knows Hughes' poetry will know just how important birds are to his core mythology. Crow is that elemental spirit of wild nature that haunts the verse and interestingly, Hughes often worked with Leonard Baskin whose drawings bring the characters of the birds to life in all their terrifying and often predatory presence. Under The North Star sees Baskin working in a colour pallet that is reminiscent of the children's illustrator Brian Wildsmith but Cave Birds: An Alchemical Cave Drama sees him, in my opinion, at the strongest. He works here in  black and white that can be delicate or an almost brutal charcoal block.


Baskin also illustrates Jonathan Maslow's The Owl Papers, a year long quest in diary form to untangle the mystery of the owl. For me owls and everything they symbolise are certainly my favourite bird and I never fail to be awe-struck by them when I've encountered them in nature reserves (I don't think I've ever seen one in the wild). I'm totally happy to see them as the embodiment of wisdom but I know, and Baskin's drawings underline this, they are in reality raptors, and as such, heartless killers.

Although Quentin Blake's The Life of Birds and Shirley Hughes' Bye Bye Birdie give us a gallery of birds that are much more tongue-in-cheek and cartoonish, their work is still rooted in the elemental mythology that an artist taps into by choosing to represent birds of all kinds. Quentin Blake puts his birds into a range of anthropomorphic situations that draw disturbing cross-species parallels and I think I'll find it hard to look at politicians and business leaders again without seeing their sly beady bird eyes and curved, disgusting beaks.


Elsewhere on this site you'll  find my review of H is for Hawk which was one of my books of the year. I'm also currently reading Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon but I'm probably stretching a point to make this a book about birds.......You will, however, be able to find a review of this in a couple of days time if you want to find out whether I think there's any ornithology of note to report on.


Terry Potter

December 2015