Bird Watch: A Book of Poetry

by Jane Yolen. Illustrated by Ted Lewin. Picture Book. 32 pages. Grades 2-4.
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Teacher's Guide

This is a truly beautiful work, and it may take you several go-throughs before you're ready to look at the text. Lewin's watercolors cover the pages, making excellent use of white space and using the print as an integral part of the design. Not only are the illustrations lifelike, they capture the feeling one has about the variety of birds: feathery, sometimes wispy and at other times solid. Viewing them, you know you are dealing here with a true observer of nature and it comes as no shock when you read on the book flap that a series of wildlife books is among his seventy previously illustrated books for children.

When you've stopped revelling in the pictures, you can look at the text. Here, too, you become immediately aware that this is no dilettante's look at nature; this is a woman who knows her birds. We knew she loved owls after Owl Moon (Putnam, 1987 ISBN 0-399-21457-7;) now we know that her interest and keen powers of observation had been at work with others of the species. Jane dedicates her book to her husband and son and notes that their lifetime lists of observed birds are extensive, but doesn't say what hers is. Her information list at the back of the book gives you information about each one she's included here. She's not only watched birds, she's listened.

Her poems catch birds on the wing, in the nest, on the tree, the pond and on the land.

Her images are wonderful. The kildeer "walked the rows, brown heads nodding over their striped bibs like satisfied farmers counting the harvest." The swan has "a marbelized stillness." She calls the great blue heron "a painted hunter....the brushstroked eye, the slash of bill, the pencil-line of legs." Always she extends our vision causing us to look at the next visitor to the bird feeder with wonder.

There are wonderful juxtapositions: the illustration of baby robins, mouths agape, thrusting up from a messy nest of twigs is Lewin's contribution to one page. Yolen's "Nestlings" compares human babies to these, noting that all babies are born ugly and unfinished.

If you're looking for an artist who uses words the way a skilled painter uses his/her brush, you've got a gold mine in this book with wordsmith and artist equally skilled. If you are even mentioning birds in the classroom, you need this book.

Whatever activities you do with it, however you and the children enjoy it, handle it with care. It's a treasure.

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  • Enough of a sales pitch, let's get on with the activities. This is the kind of book that can launch a whole theme or be used for a quiet pause of enjoyment before getting back to the work at hand. Let each child choose one of the "Bird Watch" birds and find further information from the bird book, noting the differences between the expository and poetic texts as well as the differences between Lewin's way of looking at the birds compared to the illustrator in the bird identification books. Jane Yolen lives in Hatfield, Massachusetts and these are birds which she is apt to see in her yard and environs. Look through her poems to see how many different ways she approached those birds. If you were asked or allowed to write such a book, which birds would you be apt to use as inspiration? Can you write about one?

  • Other writers have looked at these same birds. It's time to compare their views. Crows have delighted, frustrated and confounded everybody who has had contact with them on more than a surface level. Yolen overhears them discussing things (including herself) from the safety of a hedge. Robert Frost's "Dust of Snow" was dropped down on him by a crow; Paul Janeczko in his Postcard Poems (Bradbury, 1979 ISBN 0-87888-155-7) includes a delightful poem by William Witherup entitled "Crows." You won't have any trouble finding kids' picture books about crows. Among our favorites are the constant conflict between Mrs. Gaddy and the crows in a series of books by Wilson Gage.

  • Yolen's poem "The Dead Bird" in which she tries and fails to bring a bird back to life after its collision with the window pane can bring up some needed conversation about death before you go on to other sources. Margaret Wise Brown's Dead Bird (Harper, 1958 ISBN 0-06-020758-2) remains a classic of understatement and understanding and it's a natural bridge from this poem to that book. Myra Cohn Livingston's often anthologized "For a Bird" addresses the same subject sensitively and on an equally young level.

  • If you're working with older children, Jean Craighead George's Who Really Killed Cock Robin has been recently reissued. This timely novel about the effects of pesticides on wildlife may be a logical next step.

  • Don't stop at the words in Bird Watch. Those illustrations are too good to be merely flipped over. Her last poem "Song/Birds" in which the birds along the wires are compared with notes of music is matched with Lewin's almost musical scale almost telephone wire with all but the humming birds sitting note-like on a line. (The humming birds, Yolen says, provide the gracenotes. ) Can the kids find or draw birds on a scale to represent the words of a song about birds?

  • Although Yolen's poems are not Haiku, the briefer ones may remind you of such and Lewin's illustrations, at times, have an oriental cast. Finding haiku which deals with birds might lead to the children's creation of panels on which a bird painting has been done with a haiku or other brief poem printed on it.

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