“So you will gather it into your hands and cast it gently upon the air.” (How to Make a Bird)
How to Make a Bird written by Meg McKinlay, illustrated by Matt Ottley (Walker Books Australia) is shortlisted for the CBCA 2021 Picture Book of the Year. It is an exceptional, collectible work.
Meg McKinlay is the award-winning author of novels A Single Stone and Catch a Falling Star, picture books including Let Me Sleep, Sheep! (illustrated by Leila Rudge), the hilarious chapter books Duck for a Day and Definitely No Ducks and Bella and the Wandering House and Bella and the Voyaging House, as well as poetry for adults. Her work spans laugh-out-loud humour to novels, which could be described as literary fiction for young readers.
Matt Ottley is the sublime illustrator of his own books and those of others. (See titles in Clouds and Oceans below.) He is also a composer and musician.
At one level How to Make a Bird is about a girl who makes a bird. Reflecting pastimes throughout the ages, she assembles and collects pieces to create something new and original. She may be the orchestrator but “there is more to a bird than these things you have given it.”
How to Make a Bird is an open-ended tale. Ideally it is to be absorbed rather than analysed. It has a quiet, unhurried feel and gives a sense of space and timelessness.
The writing is pared back and poetic. It leaves gaps and spaces for the reader to imagine.
The illustrations allude to the vastness of the natural world, particularly the sky and ocean. These are contrasted with the intricate detail of living creatures, such as birds, and the insubstantiality, eccentricity and homeliness of a human abode.
The palette, featuring blue and yellow, derives from the natural features of beach, sea and sky. The colour of the girl’s blue dress is complementary, suggesting that she is part of this natural setting.
How to Make a Bird conjures the ineffable essence of life.
Using the book with children:
Title, Cover, Endpapers & Meaning Children consider what the title, cover and endpapers mean to them. Consider why the birds on the endpapers may be just visible, almost decipherable. They continue exploring deeply by pondering what the book is suggesting and to what else could it be referring.
“How-to” book A “how-to” book has connotations of being a manual, a guide of how to do something. However, How to Make a Bird extends this concept into a profound idea. Children skim through some “how-to” manuals. They then compare and contrast these with How to Make a Bird. They discuss how How to Make a Bird includes some aspects of a manual, and how it exceeds this genre.
Make a Bird The girl makes her bird of bones, feathers, a heart, eyes, a beak, grasping claws and “a song to sing”. Children may choose not to use these components to make a bird but they should take the opportunity to make their own bird after reading a book called How to Make a Bird. They could use an origami or other template to make a paper bird. Because the bird in this book is so special and unusual, children enhance their own bird by decorating it with feathers and items described in the book or in other ways, such as by drawing patterns or attaching found or made objects. Display the birds alongside ‘Clouds and Ocean’ (see below).
Clouds and Ocean Matt Ottley’s paintings of clouds and oceans are legendary throughout his work. Children compare his ideas and renditions of cloud, water and other natural features in other picture books he has illustrated, particularly, Teacup written by Rebecca Young, The Incredible Freedom Machines written by Kirli Saunders, Luke’s Way of Looking written by Nadia Wheatley, Home and Away written by John Marsden, Sailing Home written by Colin Thompson and The Bubble written by Josie Montano.
Matt Ottley’s illustrations could also be compared with pictures of clouds and oceans by other artists.
Discuss how Matt Ottley may have created his pictures.
Some children then paint their own clouds, while others paint oceans.
Use these paintings either as the base (ocean) and background (clouds) in a diorama box and hang the birds inside or display them as backdrops in the corner of a room (walls and ceiling) with the birds hanging in front.
Construction The girl lives in a tall, spindly dwelling. Children describe it then discuss why it is constructed this way and why a human-built construction is situated in such a natural setting. Also, how does it reflect what the girl is doing?
Could it represent part of a bird nesting box? If so, why?
Windows, Shadows & Light Sources Children observe the use of windows, shadows and light sources in the illustrations and discuss their purpose and impact.
Poetry by Meg McKinlay Meg McKinlay also writes poems for adults and mature readers. Read her poem Encroaching (Meg McKinlay’s website). How is the content and tone similar and different to How to Make a Bird?
Read Picture Books The Afternoon Treehouse by Robert Ingpen (also has blueprints, and is most likely found in libraries), and The Feather by Margaret Wild and Freya Blackwood, which has a similar idea of releasing something to find freedom.