‘To make a bird you will need a lot of very tiny bones…’ A young girl dreams of making a bird as she looks out through the window of her small dimly lit room in a shack, perched on teetering stilts on the beach. A seemingly impossible task is realised in this exquisite allegorical picture book with its poetic, spare text and ethereal, imaginative illustrations by award winning creators Meg McKinlay and Matt Ottley. Written from the second person point of view, an intimate conversation unfolds between the young girl and the reader as we join her on her journey of creativity, inspiration and courage. The measured pace and guiding tone of the narrative underscores the time and perseverance needed to make and create a thing of beauty. McKinlay’s skilful use of euphony not only makes for a satisfying read-aloud experience but also serves to draw the reader’s attention to the perfectly tuned images, particularly at significant moments in the narrative, such as the first moments when the bird takes flight. ‘See it shiver as it leans forward onto the air and then takes off in a strong, sudden movement, soaring straight up.’
Ottley’s expansive illustrations rendered in pigmented inks and digitally composed, reveal double page spreads of curved horizons and endless skies which suggest the limitless possibilities of the creative process. From the captivating embossed front cover to the detailed renderings of bones set against parchment-coloured backgrounds, intertextual references to the work and imagination of another inventive thinker and maker, Leonardo Da Vinci, abound. The palette of sepia with splashes of colour, which become more vibrant as the girl’s creation progresses, subtly signals the importance of the relationship between the old and the new, the links between the past and the future. As the young girl slowly pieces together her bird from the collected flotsam and jetsam, Ottley’s images make the intangible tangible and the abstract concrete. Both the written text and the illustrations will stimulate discussions about the symbolism and metaphors woven throughout. Holding the bird aloft at the window, are the golden cloud filled skies those of dawn or dusk, evoking a sense of celebration of new possibilities or sadness at imminent farewells?
‘How to Make a Bird’ is a lyrical, existential picture book that works on many levels to provoke readers of all ages to reflect on an aspect of what it is to be human, to think and create, and to have the courage to share that invention, thought or piece of art with the world.
‘How to Make a Bird’ was the Winner of the 2020 WA Premier’s Book Awards: Writing for Children category and the Winner of the 2021 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards: Children’s Literature, SCBWI Crystal Kite Awards, Australia & New Zealand Region, and the CBCA Book of the Year Awards: Picture Book category.