Sylvia and the Birds reviewed on KidsBooksNZ


Maria Gill has reviewed Sylvia and the Birds: How The Bird Lady saved thousands of birds and how you can, too! by Johanna Emeney and Sarah Laing on KidsBooksNZ:

‘When I lived in Campbells Bay on Auckland's North Shore, I would often see Sylvia taking penguins for a swim at the beach. She's a legend in the Bays. Her story has been written before in an early reader and environmental magazines. Now, her story is in a comprehensive children's book.

A part-graphic biography, part-practical guide to protecting our wildlife, it's a handsome, generous book with 176 pages with an A4-sized hardcover. It also has a lot of illustrations (a labour of love for Sarah Laing), photographs, comics and well researched articles. It must have taken the author and illustrator over a year to publish this book. I wondered at first how the publisher (and author and illustrator) could afford to put this wonderful book together. I found the answer at the back of the book. Creative New Zealand and generous donors have supported it. Kudos to whoever thought to contact those companies and ask if they would donate. It shows how much people believed in the project. It would be great if authors, illustrators and publishers received more support like this. Many wonderful books aren't published because they're considered too costly (and possibly risky).

The book starts with Sylvia's traumatic childhood, told in graphic form and then text with one or two illustrations per double page spread. Her career helping birds, happened one day when the Bird Rescue Centre put an advertisement in the local paper asking for people to feed baby birds, every two hours, from daylight to dark. Sylvia loved every moment of it and the birds successfully fledged. She was given more and more birds, but she became most well known for the penguins she used to take swimming every day at my local beach. 

As well as Sylvia's story, readers will find interesting factual pages about kororā (penguins), predators, and te ao Māori and kaitiakitanga (the world of Māori and traditional guardianship of the environment). The author gives a case study of kaitiakitanga at Napier Port, protecting Pānia Reef. Running along with Sylvia's story are conversations with Charlie, one of her volunteers. Later on in the book, we read about one of his conservation trips. At the end, when he's telling his story to Sylvia, he tells her sometimes he feels a bit hopeless, which segues into what people can do to become a backyard bird hero. I like that this is something achievable that a lot of people can do.

 Sylvia tells us the first thing we shouldn't do (feed bread to birds), and gives advice on what is better for them (blueberries, seeds, etc.). There's also practical advice on what to do if you've found a baby bird, if a bird bashes into a window, how to get a bird out of the house, how to make a feeding station and or a bird bath, and plants that will attract birds, as well as activities for children. Phew, that's one mammoth, comprehensive book!

A book that should be in every household and school. I showed it to my Mum and she wants to steal it. So, it's not just for kids. My 82-year-old mother identified with Sylvia's nursing career, and enjoyed the personal stories about Sylvia's life. Families will want to take on board Sylvia's advice on how to help birds in their backyard. School children will want to plant trees at their school to encourage birds into their schoolyard. There's something for everyone.

I just want to say a big 'well done' to the author and illustrator (and publisher) for not pulling back on their big idea, making it happen with the support of donors. I bet Sylvia had tears in her eyes when she was handed her copy.’