I love surprises—in particular, that one of my favorite picture books this year begins with, of all the things: “The differences between a bowerbird and me are fewer than you might expect.”
The “me” in that statement is American illustrator Susan L. Roth in Birds of a Feather: Bowerbirds and Me, coming to shelves in mid-May. Roth has been making books for children since 1984, and her remarkably distinctive collage illustrations consist of assorted papers, fabrics, wires, beads, ribbons, and much more. In 2014, she won the Sibert Medal for Parrots over Puerto Rico, co-written with Cindy Trumbore, named a Kirkus Best Book of 2013.
In Birds of a Feather, Roth compares her art-making to that of a bowerbird, birds who live in parts of Australia and New Guinea. Roth writes that both she and the bird are collage-makers—that she, as an artist, and the bowerbird are collectors of strange, surprising, and “often unrelated stuff.” Here, we see Roth—as she has illustrated herself, pockets filled with fabric pieces—gathering assorted items as art supplies, and we see a bowerbird picking up trash with his beak. Each of them uses these items in unexpected ways to create unexpected compositions “in rather small, defined spaces.” The bowerbird is building a nest, and Roth is now at work at her table.
And so it goes, as Roth addresses each creature’s purpose in creating works of art (hers is storytelling, and the bird’s is to attract a mate); notes how each creation is singular in nature; compares their tools (hers are tweezers, yet his beak operates in much the same way); identifies that they both get their ideas and materials from the greater world around them; and much more. All the while, we see the bird and artist in parallel, and we see (rather meta-tastically) that Roth is creating the illustrations for the book we hold in our hand. Both creatures try to be original, Roth notes, and they both depend upon nature and “manufactured junk” to make their creations. In my favorite spread, she confesses that they both seek praise, and here we see her autographing the very picture book we are reading at a book signing; on the wall behind her are illustrations from this book, including a large one of the bowerbird at a nest.
Roth even visually unites the artist and the bird: The bowerbird has silky, textured black feathers, and the artist is dressed, head to toe, in black. In the book’s final spread, we see that the bowerbird has in his beak what looks like the barrette once in the artist’s hair. Roth often depicts herself here with unusually elongated, larger-than-life arms and hands, reminding us that these are the key tools of her trade.
The book’s backmatter includes facts about bowerbirds and how they work, as well as a bibliography and a photo of a Male Satin Bowerbird. It’s here that readers’ curiosity for more facts about bowerbirds will be met, but Roth also has two sections entitled “How I Work” and “How We Are the Same.” These ruminations on an artist’s work, compared as they are to a bird’s, shine more light on the fascinating ways in which art and nature imitate one another.
This book brings to my mind Lois Ehlert’s The Scraps Book: Notes from a Colorful Life, released in 2014. There is much more of the memoir in Ehlert’s book, but the two picture books are fundamentally alike in that both women make statements about their artistic processes. “My art technique is called collage,” writes Ehlert. “I’m messy when I work. … [W]hen ideas are flowing, I keep working. … Mother Nature gives me free art supplies! Day after day, I work until the art looks just right to me.” Roth is doing much the same; she doesn’t visit her past as a budding artist, as Ehlert does, but she reverently pays tribute to the goal of her work as an illustrator—to create something (as a bowerbird does) that is greater than the sum of its parts and to make art she hopes is lasting and impactful.
Both she and a bowerbird, Roth writes toward the book’s close, create collages that “most people and most birds would never in a million years dream of putting together.” That she dreams this and brings us her vivid, textured, collaged artwork, masterfully composed on full-bleed spreads, is a gift to readers of all ages.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.
BIRDS OF A FEATHER. Text and illustrations copyright © 2019 by Susan L. Roth. Illustration above reproduced by permission of the publisher, Neal Porter Books/Holiday House, New York.