Finding her place on the prairie
Author Jane Yolen and illustrator David Small have teamed up for the first time to create Elsie’s Bird, a captivating new picture book that recalls the wonder of Little House on the Prairie and Sarah, Plain and Tall.
Elsie is a city girl who relishes the sounds of Boston Harbor, from the calls of the fish merchants to her friends’ jump-rope rhymes. The most beloved sounds, however, are the songs of the cardinals, chickadees, robins and wrens.
Life changes suddenly when Elsie’s mother dies, and her father, overcome with grief, wants to make a fresh start in Nebraska. Elsie brings a birdcage and her new canary, Timmy Tune, on the long train ride. The bird becomes her only source of joy in a foreign land where “there is only grass and sky and silence.”
Self-confined to her new prairie home built in the ground, with a roof made of sod, a depressed Elsie refuses to venture out, even when her father leaves on a 10-mile supply run, until Timmy escapes. Running after him, the girl enters a “sea of grass,” so tall that farm wives have been lost in it. On the bank of a creek she not only finds Timmy but discovers the voices of the plains—the cries of blackbirds, larkspur and sandhill cranes. Her father has also brought back five hens, a banty rooster and a hound dog, which turn Elsie’s house into “a true prairie home” full of sound and friends.
Partly inspired by true stories of the Westward Movement and by Yolen’s late husband, who could identify bird calls, Elsie’s Bird is a visually stunning look at this era. In elongated pages, Small uses perspective to show the packed Boston waterfront, a lengthy train chugging across flatlands and the wide expanse of the Nebraska prairie. His gentle ink, watercolor and pastel illustrations capture the earthy colors of the Midwest, and show Elsie’s transformation as the dark, menacing tall grass gives way to the soft colors of wildflowers. Small, also a master of expression, not only reveals an evolution in Elsie’s geography but in her emotions. Readers will rejoice along with her when sound and a smile return.