Friday, April 2, 2010

The Boy Who Drew Birds

Thinking that I would love to read a story- kind of Kate Dicamillo-like, I stumbled upon an advance copy of Henry Cole’s new novel. Yes, novel. A Nest for Celeste: A Story About Art, Inspiration, and the Meaning of Home is his first novel. Filled with charming illustrations of his heroine, Celeste, Cole tells the story of a humble mouse who is in need of a safe place to live. A place without the dangers of the cat or the bullying of the rats.

She finds that place in the boot of a young teenage artist. Joseph, it seems, is a gifted painter of backgrounds, just what a young John James Audubon needs as an assistant. On a plantation in Louisiana, Celeste learns that friends come from unexpected places and home is closer than you think.

Beautifully illustrated, the story brings history and ecology into its themes. However, for those of you who think K-3 when you think of Henry Cole, think a little older. It seems that Audubon, beloved painter of birds, shot many of his subjects and then wired them to look "lifelike" before he painted them. (For the record, other painters, shot and stuffed their subjects before painting.) In the novel, Celeste coaches live specimens to pose for Audubon, thereby saving their lives. Celeste seems to have nine lives herself, as she runs into many dangers on the plantation. Thankfully, her kindness to others saves her in the end.

A thorough afterword details Audubon’s life with information that Cole learned while he was writing the story. I love a book that makes me clap at the end and sends me to the library to read more. How can I not know about the shooting and wiring of the birds? I read four Audubon biographies in 2003. So, I reread them. Very subtle. If they do at all ("But he was also a crack shot with a rifle. He loved to explore the woods and study the habits of birds and make pictures of them." Armstrong, 2003), most of the books mentioned his use of a gun in the afterword or author notes. Thank you, Henry Cole, for sending me back for more information.

These picture book biographies are excellent partners to Cole’s novel. Share them with your older students before or after you read Celeste’s story. You may also want to dust off your copy of Birds of America that you can’t bear to discard.

Audubon : painter of birds in the wild frontier -- Armstrong, Jennifer. -- Harry N. Abrams, 2003., RL 5, 40p
Briefly tells the story of this nineteenth-century painter and naturalist who is most famous for his detailed paintings of birds.

The boy who drew birds : a story of John James Audubon -- Davies, Jacqueline. -- Houghton Mifflin, 2004., RL 4.4, 32p
John James Audubon, living in Pennsylvania far from his home and father in France, continues his obsession with birds, and comes up with the idea of banding the legs of his pewee bird friends to see if they will return in the spring to the nests they abandoned in the fall.

Into the Woods by Robert Burleigh. -- Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2003., RL 5.1, 34p
Uses quotes from his journals to help explore Audubon's decision to follow his dream to paint every bird species in North America.

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