August 15, 2012
Philip C. Stead established himself as an author with a talent for channeling the charm of classic children's books last year with his and his wife, Erin's, breakout hit A Sick Day for Amos McGee. His follow-up, A Home for Bird, which came out earlier this summer—and which he not only wrote, but illustrated as well—more than upholds the standard, capturing the sweet, slightly wistful quality of a certain brand of kid lit (with roots that go back at least as far as Winnie-the-Pooh) in both his narrative and his exquisite crayon-and-gouache illustrations.
A Home for Bird is really about Vernon, an almost painfully earnest toad, who one day encounters a colorful but silent and motionless bird while he's out "foraging for interesting things." (We know Bird is silent and motionless because he's made out of wood, but Vernon merely takes him for the quiet type.) He takes Bird to meet his friends Skunk and Porcupine, explaining to them that Bird is "shy, but also a very good listener," but the continued silence leads him to suspect that his new friend is sad about something.
The three animals decide that perhaps Bird is missing his home, and so Vernon resolves to get him back to it—something of a challenge, given that he has no idea where or (even what) that home might be, and of course Bird can't tell him. Undaunted, Vernon sets sail downriver with Bird (in a teacup he's found) and finds several possible places of Bird's origin—but his friend's silence tells him he hasn't discovered the right place.
So Vernon ties their boat to a helium balloon to explore further; wondering aloud, in a moment of fear and doubt as they take off, whether this was a wise move, he takes Bird's silence in response as impressively stoic bravery. They eventually touch down near a farmhouse, where a surprising yet remarkably uncontrived happy ending awaits both adventurers.
Stead's touch is perfect throughout, his crayon- and brushstrokes lending a loose, laid-back feeling to the proceedings while also being full of wonderful details, right down to the foraged bottle-cap sun hat Vernon wears in the boat. The tone of the text matches that feel precisely; Vernon becomes pretty difficult not to love within a couple of pages, and I doubt much of this book's intended audience—or even those well outside it age-wise—will resist. (Our four-year-old certainly hasn't.)
It's a neat trick to write a fully original picture book that has all the best qualities of a classic of the genre. I think it's safe to say at this point that this author has the knack.
[Cover image courtesy of Macmillan USA]