THE SILVER SWAN

One of the best-known English madrigals is “The Silver Swan,” a haunting melody about a swan’s dying song written in 1612 by Orlando Gibbons, and familiar to anyone who has spent much time in a choir robe. The piercing melancholy of this famous song permeates this sad and rather disturbing book, another example of the newer breed of picture books for adults masquerading as stories for children. A young, unnamed, and apparently motherless boy tells a wordy, first-person story of his fascination with a silver swan who swims in the pond on the boy’s farm. The swan’s mate arrives, cygnets arrive, the hungry fox arrives, and it’s the bloody scene from every National Geographic wildlife TV special all over again. The boy is horrified at the cruel course of nature and hears the swan’s dying song (mercifully offstage) before he finds a “terrible wreath of white feathers nearby.” He expresses his anger at losing “his” silver swan, wanting to kill the fox, but then realizes that the fox is a mother with children to feed, too. In the last pages, the boy observes the bereaved male swan alone and languishing as soon as his babies are grown, until another female arrives at the pond to become the swan’s new mate. It’s hard to know who would choose this book, although its large, landscape-format illustrations in chalk pastels by Birmingham are undeniably exquisite. The story is too long, lyrical, and sad for preschoolers and the format of an oversized picture book is too young for older elementary students. It might possibly be comforting as a gift to someone who is bereaved, but the facile replacement of the swan’s mate provides a “life goes on” message that might be cruel in itself. Perhaps it’s just for adult collectors of beautiful picture books, then, or for those who appreciate the pathos of a swan song. Despite beautiful art, a misguided attempt that fails to take flight. (Picture book. 7-9)

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2000

ISBN: 0-8037-2543-4

Page Count: 32

Publisher: Putnam

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2000

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RED-EYED TREE FROG

Bishop’s spectacular photographs of the tiny red-eyed tree frog defeat an incidental text from Cowley (Singing Down the Rain, 1997, etc.). The frog, only two inches long, is enormous in this title; it appears along with other nocturnal residents of the rain forests of Central America, including the iguana, ant, katydid, caterpillar, and moth. In a final section, Cowley explains how small the frog is and aspects of its life cycle. The main text, however, is an afterthought to dramatic events in the photos, e.g., “But the red-eyed tree frog has been asleep all day. It wakes up hungry. What will it eat? Here is an iguana. Frogs do not eat iguanas.” Accompanying an astonishing photograph of the tree frog leaping away from a boa snake are three lines (“The snake flicks its tongue. It tastes frog in the air. Look out, frog!”) that neither advance nor complement the action. The layout employs pale and deep green pages and typeface, and large jewel-like photographs in which green and red dominate. The combination of such visually sophisticated pages and simplistic captions make this a top-heavy, unsatisfying title. (Picture book. 7-9)

Pub Date: March 1, 1999

ISBN: 0-590-87175-7

Page Count: 32

Publisher: Scholastic

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1999

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TWENTY-ONE ELEPHANTS AND STILL STANDING

Strong rhythms and occasional full or partial rhymes give this account of P.T. Barnum’s 1884 elephant parade across the newly opened Brooklyn Bridge an incantatory tone. Catching a whiff of public concern about the new bridge’s sturdiness, Barnum seizes the moment: “’I will stage an event / that will calm every fear, erase every worry, / about that remarkable bridge. / My display will amuse, inform / and astound some. / Or else my name isn’t Barnum!’” Using a rich palette of glowing golds and browns, Roca imbues the pachyderms with a calm solidity, sending them ambling past equally solid-looking buildings and over a truly monumental bridge—which soars over a striped Big Top tent in the final scene. A stately rendition of the episode, less exuberant, but also less fictionalized, than Phil Bildner’s Twenty-One Elephants (2004), illustrated by LeUyen Pham. (author’s note, resource list) (Picture book. 7-9)

Pub Date: Sept. 26, 2005

ISBN: 0-618-44887-X

Page Count: 32

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2005

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