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  • David Elliott

ON On the Wing

In the past week alone, the New York Times has run three stories about birds and birders. A participant on a recent trip where I was Writer in Residence showed up at the hotel in Athens, binoculars hanging around his neck, like a medical device on which his well-being was dependent. And a close friend of ours is now dating an ardent birdwatcher, (English, no less, which somehow seems just right.) Birds and the people who love them. They’re everywhere!

Though avian life is still something I know little about, I did write sixteen bird poems for On the Wing. Yes, I can tell a robin from an oriole, but I still have a hard time distinguishing one sparrow from another. And from my training at New England Conservatory, I have a good musical memory, but for the life of me I still cannot recognize a bird by its song except maybe for the blue-jay, its aggressive jeer difficult to ignore for anyone who has ever been bullied.

What an exercise in wonder On the Wing proved to be. Who knew, for example, that the enterprising and amorous bower bird builds a shrine for his intended?

I read that one of these love nests included a plastic doll's head that the bird managed to scavenge.

Or that flamingos are pink because of the shrimp they eat?

So grateful that the series editor, Liz Bicknell, allows me to use words like conflagration.

For an avian ignoramus like myself, writing On the Wing was a revelation. One of the terrific things about writing these books is the way they have opened me to the natural world.

Choosing an illustrator was difficult. An artist with Holly's reputation would mean that the book would be on an even later schedule than we anticipated since artists at her level are in high demand. (We waited two years before the brilliant Eugene Yelchin could even start character sketches for the upcoming BOAR and HEDGEHOG Might be Friends.. So worth it, by the way!) But just as daunting would be the inevitable comparisons to Holly’s work. A tough position for any artist. Yikes!

In the end, we took a chance on newcomer Becca Stadtlander. We were so happy we did! Her wonderful gouache paintings hold their own against Holly’s woodcuts. Different but also the same. Take for example, her work on “The Japanese Crane”. To my eye (and ear), the movement of the cranes complements exactly the subtle rhythm of the poem. You can almost see the cranes move.

The art in the book is much brighter than this. Sorryl, Becca, I'm a technological menace.

And how about that spectacular Macaw?

There was nothing more to say.

We weren’t alone in our enthusiasm. Here’s what Kirkus wrote in a starred review. "From the graceful cranes flying across its wraparound cover to the single feather on the title page to the soaring eagle at the end, this book astounds." It’s hard to believe that On the Wing was Becca’s first picture book. Since then she has established herself as the illustrator of many more acclaimed picture books. It feels great to know that it all started with On the Wing.

Click here to see (and hear) the trailer. It captures so beautifully the spirit of the book.

A Note to Teachers, Librarians, and Parents: I've heard from many of you that teaching poetry units can be a bit daunting. To help you out, Candlewick Press has updated a downloadable, free Teacher's Guide for the books in this series. Aligned to Common Core State Standards for grades 1–4, this guide can be used as a learning resource in classrooms, at libraries, for book events, or by parents to extend and reinforce the educational aspects of reading David Elliott’s poetry series. Specific Common Core State Standards in language arts and math as well as Next Generation Science Standards are listed at the back. If you'd like a copy of the guide, all you need do press the contact button on my site and request the file. I'll get one to you before you can say metaphor.

Next week: In the Past

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