Paula Green reviews Sylvia and the Birds for Poetry Box


Paula Green has reviewed Johanna Emeney and Sarah Laing’s new book Sylvia and the Birds: How The Bird Lady saved thousands of birds and how you can, too on her children’s poetry blog, Poetry Box: 

So many children’s books published in Aotearoa are crafted with love and care. Massey University Press pays exemplary attention to book design, the feel of the paper, the cover, the size and look of the font! Their recent project, Sylvia and the Birds, is a visual delight. The book is designed and illustrated by Sarah Laing with verve, with captivating movement and life (she did Poetry Box’s header!). The book itself is an all-encompassing reader experience: a smorgasbord of prose, comic strips, graphic nonfiction, poetry. Writer Johanna Emeney and Sarah make an excellent team.

“I began using a combination of illustrations and photography to tell the story. Jo wanted it to be a bit like an annual, with a variety of styles juxtaposed, and to include artwork from the young environmentalists and photographers she had met. It was my job to stitch all the pieces together, adding illustrations where I saw fit, and adapting certain passages into comic strips to tell the story in a more visual manner. As soon as we finished one section, we began constructing the next section, having vigorous phone discussions about what to include. This book was created organically, as one would a bird’s nest! We gathered material; we threaded it in. We handed our little bird’s nest over to the publisher in late 2021.”

— Sarah Laing

So who is Sylvia Durrant, also known as The Bird Lady? She ran a bird rescue centre for 35 years, caring for over 140,000 injured and unwell birds. We learn a lot about Sylvia, from her challenging childhood up until her “retirement”, but we also get welcome tips on how we too can look after birds. Much of the narrative, or memoir, is in the voice of Sylvia. But fascinating layers are added through the voices of others.

I love the conversing kererū who open the book by asking, “how you get to be a bird lady?”. One is serious, and one is madcap crazy. Sensible Kererū says you get to be a bird lady by “reading every ornithology book published”, while madcap crazy Kererū says you get to be a bird lady by fighting “all the baddies bank robbers, megalomaniacs, cats”.

Read the full review here.