October 20, 2016

The Wolf-Birds

by Willow Dawson
Owlkids Books
40 pp.
Ages 5-8

Sometimes I receive review copies of books that get office-bushwhacked on their way to reviews on CanLit for LittleCanadians.  Sometimes I get back to them, and sometimes I don’t.  And then sometimes because of award nominations I feel compelled to finally get that review out.  Such is the case with Willow Dawson’s The Wolf-Birds, recently nominated for the 2016 TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award and the Marilyn Baillie Picture Book Award, the 2016 Information Book Award and the 2017 Blue Spruce Award.  Mea culpa for not reviewing The Wolf-Birds sooner.

The Wolf-Birds is a story of survival in the natural world and it’s not an easy one.  But when life is governed by the weather and food availability, how can it be anything but perilous?  Two hungry ravens endure the cold of winter, scavenging for food wherever possible.  When they hear four wolves in pursuit of a buffalo, they follow, expectant of some scraps.  Instead, one of the wolves is killed and the three remaining wolves continue their own search for food, alerted by the ravens to a starving and injured deer.  

From The Wolf-Birds by Willow Dawson

In the wild winter wood…

…one animal’s life helps many others live.  

From strongest to smallest,

everyone feasts in turn, filling
bellies and beaks. (pg. 24-27)
The interdependent relationship between the ravens and wolves is recognized by the common use of the term “wolf-birds” for ravens, acknowledging the unique connection between the two creatures.  As Willow Dawson’s story reveals, ravens are prepared to steal food killed by wolves as well as lead them by call and display to potential prey, while wolves pay attention to where ravens congregate and willingly clean up that which the birds do not eat.  It’s a unique interdependence and one that affords greater discussion in science classrooms, discussions aptly supported by the book’s references and information guide available at the Owlkids website here.

But, The Wolf-Birds is an illustrated children’s book and one whose artwork must be recognized as fundamental in the telling of its story.  The text is spare and that is because the illustrations, acrylic paint on board, propel the story through the cycles of food and life. Eerily reminiscent of the sleek animals of cave dwellings, Willow Dawson’s fauna are simple, outlined creatures, unadorned but easily identifiable, coloured in muted earth tones of feathers and fur, alongside cool snow and winter skies, with occasional brightness of rose or green.
From The Wolf-Birds by Willow Dawson
There is a story to tell here of life in the wild and a mutualistic relationship of which many readers are unaware.  The Wolf-Birds, beautifully depicted by Willow Dawson's artwork, is a story that must be told and appreciated for its lessons and its message about working together and survival, teachings that go far beyond the natural environment portrayed within.

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