In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Owl as villain

Dear Aunt Debbie,

From Athena's owl to the Mother Owl and her babies, we are generally big owl fans in this house.  Isabel even has a hooded towel shaped like an owl, with head and claws, so after baths she often pretends to be an owl.  Sometimes, like the baby owl in The Mother Owl, she is threatened by a dangerous raccoon, and needs us to come swoop in as her parent owls and save her.  I'm sure that, when the time comes, she'll love Archimedes.

But in tonight's requested book, the owl is the bad guy, and it's bats who take center stage.  I'm writing, of course, about Stellaluna, Janell Cannon's lovely and scientifically accurate account of a baby fruit bat who is separated from her mother and goes to live for some time with a family of birds.  It's an owl who causes the separation:

One night, as Mother Bat followed the heavy scent of ripe fruit, an owl spied her.  On silent wings the powerful bird swooped down upon the bats.

Dodging and shrieking, Mother Bat tried to escape, but the owl struck again and again, knocking Stellaluna into the air.  Her baby wings were as limp and useless as wet paper.

Down, down she went, faster and faster, into the forest below.

Stellaluna came to us as a gift from cousins Ona and Jessie when Eleanor was not quite two years old, and it took a little while for her to warm to the book.  It's a fairly long picture book (48 pages), and is a little scary at the start.  Isabel was interested earlier than Eleanor, partly I think because of the gorgeous illustrations of the bats and Stellaluna's foster bird family.  Many of the pages are taken up largely with a saturated blue sky as backdrop to the pale beige of the bats, birds, and trees.  Each feather and bat wing is lovingly articulated -- looking at the pictures, you really get a sense of how a bat might move, hang, or fly.

The story moves quickly past the traumatizing beginning: Stellaluna lands in a birds' nest, and becomes a foster sister to Pip, Flitter, and Flap.  In return for feeding and housing Stellaluna, Mama Bird insists that she behave like a bird rather than a bat: she eats insects, flies during the day rather than at night, and by no means is allowed to hang upside down from the nest -- her foster siblings try it too, and almost fall.  Late in the book, Stellaluna strays away from the others and is caught away from the nest at night.  Happily, she's discovered by a group of bats, and even more happily, one of the bats is her mother, long feared to be owl prey.  There's a reunion ending, cross-species friendship, and two detailed pages of "Bat Notes," explaining in more detail to kids Eleanor's age or above interesting facts about bats ("The scientific name for bats is Chiroptera, 'hand-wing,' because the skeleton that supports the wing is composed of the animal's elongated finger bones.")

So far, Isabel has shown no disconnect between the image of owl life here and in her rich fictional world.  When you come down to it, the girl really just loves animals, in all their combinations.

Love, Annie

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