Allison's Book Bag

Archive for the ‘Birds’ Category

Talon Come Fly With Me by Gigi Sedlmayer is a quiet adventure about a young girl with special needs who befriends two mated condors. While the story suffers from a weak plot and simple writing, it’s also a heartwarming and informative one.

Nine-year-old Matica has a growth handicap that traps her inside a body the size of a two-year-old. It also causes her to be rejected by the residents in the remote village of Peru where she lives with her brother and Australian missionaries. Size however does not impact how she’s viewed by a local mating pair of condors. After a year of her watching them, Matica attempts to meet them face to face. She does this by visiting them in the same place day after day, until one of them becomes curious and flies near her. After this, she brings them dead lizards to eat. As a way of the male bird saying thank you, he flies up to her and allows himself to be touched.

Seldmayer could have easily filled a book with just the above drama, but instead strips her narrative to a few bare-boned chapters. She does the same disservice to Matica’s encounters with poachers, largely because Sedlmayer fails to integrate any tension, conflict, or surprise twists. Instead she relies heavily on a passive narrative laden with dialog. While this simplistic style might make the story more palpable for reluctant readers, it unfortunately left me at times bored.

After Matica has the opportunity to touch a male condor, her relationship expands to include his mate. When poachers attempt to steal a condor egg, the condor couple turn to Matica for help. She carries the egg home with her, where she keeps it warm. Every day the condors check with her to see if their baby has hatched. When the baby is finally born, Matica feeds it, cleans it, and even helps it to learn to fly. The second half of Talon Come Fly With Me is dedicated to Matica’s relationship with the baby condor, and here’s where Seldmayer’s admiration for these unique birds shines through.

Although Matica is a sympathetic character, a story from the viewpoint of the condors alone may have resulted in a stronger emotional connection for me. The condor family are the stars, and through Seldmayer’s detailed portrayal of them, I learned about their idiosyncrasies and their diminishing numbers. Talon Come Fly With Me is a pleasant way to launch one’s reading of nature books, after which one should turn to literary giants of the genre such as Jean Craighead George.

In honor of Allison’s Book Bag being five years old this year, I’m taking this week to repost my most popular reviews over the past five years. From 2010, there is….

Titles intrigue me. Consider for example: The Story of a Seagull and the Cat Who Taught Her to Fly. Immediately, the title prompts all kinds of questions. For example, how can a cat teach a seagull to fly? I’d like to know, wouldn’t you? Or when is the last time I have read a book about a seagull? Books abound about dogs and cats, to a lesser extent about mice and rats, but not so much about birds. Finally, when is the last time I have read a book that isn’t about a lost or stranded animal seeking its owner? The title alone made me read this book.

As for the book, sigh, it reads like a first novel. Some parts worked well; others not so well. The main flaws were the sentimental, sometimes preachy tone, along with an overly large cast of minor characters. There are skinny Secretario, the Colonel, smart Einstein, two more unnamed  alley cats…. and these are just the cats. There’s also a chimp, a gang of rats, and three humans. In a book of just over 100 pages, that’s far too many characters to keep track of. Fortunately, the two main characters, Zobra the cat and Lucky the seagull, are sympathetic characters whom I care enough about to put up with the overwhelming cast ensemble. In addition, the tale engages. How can it not? After all, it’s about the unlikely pairing of a cat and a seagull. As a bonus, there is also a spattering of humor throughout–especially in the second half.

An adult seagull (Larus michahellis)

Image via Wikipedia

Children’s books, especially older ones, often contain morals. Yet the less explicit the author is about the message, the more palatable it is. Unfortunately, some pages of this book read like an educational video–or, worse, a tract. For example, Sepulved teaches that “oil glues to the wings of a bird” thereby immobilizing and eventually killing them.

Sepulved also preaches, through the cats, that “it’s with the best intentions that humans cause the greatest damage”. To illustrate, the cats refer to human Harry who knows his chimp is fond of beer. Every time the chimp is thirsty, Harry hands him a beer. Now the chimp is an alcoholic. As for the seagulls, they’re dying because of all the pollution humans put into their oceans.

In a way, the message is effective: I must have learned it, because I am paraphrasing it back to you. Yet truly, how many of us remember school videos for any other reason that they represented escape from schoolwork? As for tracts, well, if we even bother to read them, we all know where we toss them in the end. 😦

Yet there is still that title to contend with: How can a cat teach a seagull to fly? For that matter, how do a cat and a seagull even meet? Well, once upon a time, a cat came across a dying seagull who made him promise to watch over her egg, and to not EAT it, and when the time is right to teach her baby to fly…. For the rest of the story, check out The Story of a Seagull and the Cat Who Taught her to Fly.

Not every page of this book held my attention, but I still recommend the book. Luis Sepulved’s passion for the care of nature sparkles on every page, which is something I commend. One day I hope to integrate such passion for nature into my stories. Moreover, this is a short and sweet tale about honor. Zobra fights alley cats and rats and eventually even breaks a cat taboo–all in an attempt to honor his vow to a dying seagull. I like both Zobra and Lucky, the latter who initially sees herself as a cat. If you can ignore the few flaws of the book, The Story of a Seagull and the Cat Who Taught her to Fly is worth the read.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate it?

One of the most famous birds in modern literature is back and he is in perfect form in the latest offering by Mo Willems. Through its sassy story and energetic artwork, The Pigeon Needs a Bath will both entertain and educate.

With his latest book Pigeon book, Willems once again creates takes an ordinary routine and creates an imaginative tale. Pigeon just took a bath a month ago. Or at least Pigeon thinks it was that recent. At any rate, “clean” and “dirty” are just words, right? Pigeon feels clean and isn’t that what should matter? After all, aren’t there more important things in life? Pigeon has a litany of complaints, causing the suspense to grow, and making readers wonder if he will ever get a bath. Adults will relate to how difficult getting children to take a bath can be, while children themselves will be eager to see where the story will go, making this picture book a win for all ages.

There are additional reasons too for liking The Pigeon Needs a Bath. Per the usual routine, the bus driver (clad in a shower cap and bathrobe) opens the story by asking readers to help convince the pigeon to take a bath. With the turn of each page, Willems anticipates denials: Pigeon demands, “When was the last time YOU had a bath?!” My favorite spreads are of the flies, who join readers in pleading with Pigeon to take a bath. There’s also the blend of simple phrases such as “I feel clean” and “I don’t smell anything” with sophisticated vocabulary such as: pretty recently, unimportant things, purely coincidental. Best of all is the ending twist. Not only is Pigeon finally convinced of how important bathing is, but now finds he might just want to play in the tub forever….


Then there is the design. Endpapers bookend the story, including a funny turnabout for the duckling, here a rubber bath toy. Page backgrounds appropriately modulate from dirty browns to fresh blues. The large and dramatic font ramps up the energy of the story. Through simple flat-line illustrations, Pigeon’s full range of expressions are easy to discern. When Pigeon is finally forced to step into the water, it takes 28 little panels (and one medium-size one) in which he fusses over the tub and its myriad inadequacies, for him to change his attitude. Later, there are eight more panels that display what happen when Pigeon settles to a bath. My favorite page is one that simply reads, in the biggest possible print, TEN HOURS LATER.

For those of who are familiar with Willems, you may be surprised that this is my first introduction to his famous character of The Pigeon. It won’t be my last!

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

The The Iridescence of Birds by Patricia MacLachlan wasn’t what I expected. From the title, I assumed it would be about birds. When I discovered that it was about an artist, I prepared myself instead to read a straightforward biography. Again, MacLachlan surprised me, for her picture book is anything but ordinary. The text is poetic and the illustrations echo Henri Matisse’s own evolving palette.

This dreamy picture book is proof that adults can learn new things. For example, with much apologies to those of my readers who are artists, I knew nothing before about Henri Matisse. Now I know that he lived in France. His mother painted plates and brought red rungs to hang on the walls. She let Matisse mix paint colors, as well as arrange fruits and flowers brought from market. Moreover, the family raised pigeons. The title refers to the fact that as a boy, Matisse watched the movements of these pigeons. He observed their colors that changed with the light as they moved, a concept that his mother informed him meant iridescence. Incidentally, despite my college-level vocabulary, this is a new word for me. Certainly, a selling point for me about The Iridescence of Birds is how much I learned, without really realizing it. That’s always the best way!

Next, I’d like to talk about MacLachlan’s style. It’s a little unorthodox, in that MacLachlan tells her whole story in one long sentence. It’s also speculative in nature, being worded as a book-length query. Yet it works. Each phrase leads to the next, with the final one ending with a question mark. It makes for a quiet and somewhat meandering book that perfectly captures an idyllic childhood. According to MacLachlan, she had experienced a difficult time trying to find a publisher for The Iridescence of Birds. Until one unique editor took on the project, MacLachlan had categorized The Iridescence of Birds has a story that didn’t work and wouldn’t sell. Would the book have worked just as well if it had been punctuated in a conventional manner? Would the book have worked just as well if it had included more exhaustive facts? Maybe. Maybe not. I don’t know. What I do know is that at the end, I felt inspired to both know more about Matisse and to paint. That’s makes it a win for this reviewer!


If I were to criticize anything, it would be the illustrations. Some critics note that the artwork becomes bolder and brighter as the story unfolds. While I’ll admit there is a progression, the pages remain a little too quiet and flat in their feel for me, especially given that I’m reading about an artist. At the same time, I have to accept that I might also just be ignorant here. According to other reviews, the artwork includes Matisse’s own images. The illustrator for The Iridescence of Birds herself explains in the back pages that she spent months looking at reproductions of his work. She apparently choose to try relief painting, because it forced her to simplify her shapes and to focus on the colors. At any rate, I did like all the varieties of colors, especially those associated with the pigeons. Also, I was particularly taken by the pages that showed both the boy and the adult Matisse.

The Iridescence of Birds might not have been what I expected, but it was a pleasure to read. Should it inspire you to want to know more about Henri Matisse, there is a short bio at the end. In it, I learned that Matisse always loved birds, so it seems fitting for me to learn about him. There is also a list of fuller-length biographies about Matisse.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

JeffKarrusThe last presenter I had the privilege to hear at the 2014 Plum Creek Children’s Literacy Festival was Jeff Kurrus. Associate editor of the award-winning wildlife publication NEBRASKAland magazine, Karrus lives in the Midwest with his wife and two-year-old daughter. Karrus is the author of Have You Seen Mary?, which was nominated for the Golden Sower Award, and The Tale of Jacob Swift.

Kurrus had been an editor for roughly 17 years before joining the staff of NEBRASKAland. He also taught at the high school and college levels, which gave him experience helping students improve their work.

Although his title at NEBRASKALand is associate editor, editing is just one part of what he does. His responsibilities include writing, photographing, and editing. In addition to his contributions to the magazine, Karrus also regularly posts to his NEBRASKAland blog. Kurrus’ job relies on a combination of his love for nature and writing.

In Editing Matters, Kurrus offered a bit of advice for those interested in editing for a living. “You’re going to have to go and combine talent with an extreme amount of drive.” He says there are many other people out there working to improve themselves as writers and editors, and more than likely they’ll be the ones who get the jobs.

Over the next few days, I’ll post highlights from his presentation, review his two books, and provide a photo post of a local wildlife safari. Save the dates: November 5-8!


ALLISON: If you were to show us your childhood in photographs only, what types of images might we see?

JEFF: Lots of hunting and fishing photographs, time with family, and me dressed in various sports uniforms—namely baseball.

ALLISON: You have said in interviews that you are a writer first. What is your earliest memory of enjoying to write?

JEFF: I used to write westerns as a child. I’d call them my “books” and have one of my older sisters write titles in bubble letters on the front pages. I remember writing stories on top of a toy box, so it was in my early elementary school years. Mostly they were carbon copies of what I had read in books or seen in shows. The first one was entitled “Tom Horn,” and it was my interpretation of the movie of the same name. I remember revisiting that story a few years later (already a reviser) to try to make it better. The stories were written on notebook paper and placed in folders. I have no idea where they are now but would love to read them.

ALLISON: If you could “rewrite” one part of your life, what would it be?

JEFF: I don’t have a ton of regrets. My childhood was great, followed by excellent high school and college years. There were rough times, of course, but re-writing would be a bit strong of a word.

But, I would do a few things differently, if I knew that nothing in my current life would change. I’d listen in elementary school music class and learn how to play a guitar, I’d take photo classes in high school, and I’d date my current wife even longer when we were kids instead of being around anyone else when I was younger. Most of all, I would have more fun on a day-to-day basis. Nothing is as stressful as it seemed like it was two weeks later. I wish I could have always kept that in mind.

ALLISON: You taught in high school and college, but now are an editor. What do you miss about being in the classroom?

JEFF: The interaction with students. Sharing what I know about the writing process and seeing them develop as creatives. Being inspired by their work. Talking about writing.

ALLISON: If you were to return to the classroom, what would miss about being an editor?

JEFF: Being able to make decisions on content selection for our publication. Interacting with professional writers and photographers. Sitting down on a day-to-day basis with graphic artists and designers and watching a project come to fruition.


ALLISON: You love nature. What has been your most dangerous experience in exploring the Nebraskan outdoors?

JEFF: While hunting one morning, the father of a very close friend became entangled with a tree stand and was screaming for help, which in turn led my dad (who was hunting with us) to find him first and trying to keep the man’s leg’s from breaking because of the way he was hanging from this tree. I had to jump on my dad’s bad back and cut this man out of these foot straps to free him from this stand in the tree. If he had been hunting alone he would have died. It was lots of adrenaline, pressing this 200 pound man above my head and lowering him to the ground. (Normally, I am very weak and the last person you want with you in a fight). It was a very scary experience.

ALLISON: You have taken many photographs of animals. What has been your most memorable animal moment?

JEFF: The one that always sticks out to me is photographing a snapping turtle on a roadside. The photo, while nice, isn’t altogether unique, but it always reminds me of my buddy that was with me and how he pulled the truck over without me even having to ask. He knew I would want to photograph the turtle, and it reminds me of how in sync two lifelong friends can be when they’re together.

ALLISON: As an editor, you are aware of the importance of revision. How do you teach its importance to students?

JEFF: I tell them it’s everything. The first draft is for yourself, and then you start thinking about audience. I do this by going into the classroom and showing students how to revise using my work as test subjects. The students, after five minutes, feel quite comfortable helping me edit my work. I teach them that everyone revises, and show them how many drafts I do for individual pieces and how long they take me. I do a lot of modeling appropriate revision practices, hoping something sticks with them in their own work.

ALLISON: What do you hope readers will gain from your two books: Have You Seen Mary? and Tale of Jacob Swift?

JEFF: A couple of things. I want students to learn about these species and their habitats. All animals are really cool for different reasons, and I hope these books are a jump start for students to continue their own outdoor development. I also want students to understand that there is more than one way to tell a story, and that having a mean character isn’t necessary. Some of literature’s greatest stories have conflict built on circumstance, and I think this is an interesting way to create tension without having bullies, mean-spirited people, etc. In Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, the conflict is Mount Everest and everything that is involved with trying to summit that peak. Even though it’s non-fiction, there’s something fascinating in that premise to me. Nature provides this outlet as well. Even when the golden eagle is trying to eat Jacob, it’s not doing so out of meanness. It’s doing so because golden eagles eat swift foxes. Nature just provides the perfect outlet for telling relatable stories to kids with fascinating photos.

ALLISON: What was it like to have Have You Seen Mary nominated for a Golden Sower award?

JEFF: It was amazing. Truly. I knew nothing about the award until schools starting contacting me and I found out how special it was to be included on this list. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me and I am extremely grateful that so many students were able to learn about these amazing birds.

ALLISON: What’s next?

JEFF: That’s always an interesting question. Here’s what I’m working on right now, in no definite order: 1) The Magic Brush Shoppe, a short chapter book about a man who owns a hair brush store in a town where nearly everyone shaves their head. 2) The sequel to Have You Seen Mary? It’s a story I’ve been chasing for a long time. 3) Turtle’s Big Idea, a photo-fiction story about an animal Olympics being held on the tall grass prairie. 4) An unnamed photo-fiction project about an animal that just doesn’t think he’s good enough to be conserved.

Allisons' Book Bag Logo

Thank You!

Allison’s Book Bag will no longer be updated. Thank you for eight years!

You can continue to follow me at:



Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 127 other subscribers