The premise of the text is simple: is bigger better? Pelican announces that he will adjudicate the titular contest and appears in cameos on right hand pages throughout the narrative to encourage each bird to show their strengths.
Each water bird – spoonbill, darter, oyster catcher and more – fill up double page spreads to enable the reader to see them using their beaks at their best. As each one is awarded a gold medal, the ‘wise old pelican’ turns its yellow eye upwards and towards the reader to share the joke - which is, of course, that fit-for-purpose is always best.
Narelle Oliver was a gifted artist who primarily worked with printmaking to create memorable and accurate portrayals of animals and birds. She was never afraid to present her material from the angle appropriate to the subject, and trusted the reader to hover above the earth or plunge to the depths of the ocean as she followed them up close, underground or into the sky. In creating this book, she used linocut, hand-coloured watercolour, ink and pastel.
The truism of birding that birds are creatures most accurately depicted by illustration rather than photography is proved in the pages of this picture book which show feather, eye, claw and beak in stunning detail. Mangroves were made to be seen via this medium, with every mark cut into lino creating pictures in relief to be savoured. The composition and colouring of the artist’s rendering of water are particularly noteworthy, prompting the sophisticated reader to think about the depths and currents of that environment, and what may be just below the surface. The cover is worth examining in the same detail – at first glance the Pelican seems the epitome of the title but the profiles of the birds flying together away from the ultimately useless medals tell the whole story. Shortlisted for Children’s Book Council of Australia Book of the Year: Picture Book 1994.