this is not a review: ‘the triumphant tale of the house sparrow’, by jan thornhill

 

I was surprised and delighted by the adulty appeal of Jan Thornhilll’s The Triumphant Tale of the House Sparrow … technically a picture book (with wonderful illustrations) but the kind that bears reading by all ages for a sort of Coles Notes (do they still exist?) version of a subject that can then be pursued in longer form if you need/want more info. Though, honestly, there’s plenty here, enough that after reading it will surely be  impossible to look at this bird quite the same way.

Given the title, and the opening sentence…

“Behold the most despised bird in human history.”

… we can (rightly) assume there will be some adventurous backstory to follow, i.e. how did it get from Most Despised to Triumphant?

Also, and not that I think about sparrows a lot, but I didn’t know they were so universally (and for thousands of years) disliked. I assumed some people just didn’t like them in the way some people don’t like clowns. (Which is completely understandable.)

But no. It’s much bigger than that and, most interesting of all, their dislikeability has a lot to do with us, with our lifestyle. Because what we know for sure is they love to hang around us, like those friends who think we’re all having such a good time that they forget to go home.

This wasn’t always the case.

What happened was, we invented agriculture.

We began growing fields of grain and the sparrow, a bird that used to migrate in search of food, suddenly didn’t need to leave town so it stayed and ate that nicely planted all you can eat buffet. It came into cities and towns too, because we had horses that were fed buckets of grain. And it hung around our houses because of crumbs from tablecloths shaken out the back door, and several other surprising sources. Long story short, it became a house sparrow.

And we got cranky.

In Egypt the sparrow surplus was handled by using them as pet food. (Often found in the mummified stomachs of beloved animals.)

In Germany there was a sparrow bounty, a required number of heads had to be handed in or fines were imposed.

In China people were encouraged to bang pots twenty four hours a day in grain fields to stop the birds from landing, which worked exceptionally well… so well in fact that zillions of birds fell from the sky, exhausted and dead, and the crops died from an infestation of bugs that would have normally been eaten by the sparrows.

In cities they were noisy and just plain bothersome. In one incident, a single sparrow found its way into a large hall where a Guiness-records-sized domino display had been set up with millions of dominos… the sparrow landed and over 20,000 toppled over before they could stop the domino effect. But the bird was still in the building and naturally they worried about the other ten trillion dominos so they hired a professional hunter to come and shoot the bird, which is now stuffed in a museum. (The bird not the hunter.)

In a way, the sparrow’s biggest crime is its adaptability and how its population tends to increase along with our own. (Though we seem not to complain the same way about people numbers.)

However, mysteriously, and for some very many years now, sparrow numbers have been in decline. The Netherlands, for one, has declared them a protected species and, as Jan Thornhill points out, this might well beg some attention:

“Because the House Sparrow normally lives its whole life in a very small area, it can be a living indicator of pollutants in that place. To scientists, it is just like a canary in a coal mine — except that coal mine is our urban environment. Since the House Sparrow lives where we live, wouldn’t it be smart to figure out why it’s disappearing? What if the culprit is something that is as unhealthy for humans as it is for the House Sparrow?”

I think this book, generally, deserves all kinds of attention, not only as it relates to house sparrows, but what it represents in how we so often look at nature, what’s taken for granted, the problems we ourselves have created and now blame on the natural world, much of which is merely doing its best to tolerate us.

The picture book format works well because the amount of text is just right for that Coles Notes gleaning. Any less wouldn’t do the subject justice. But it’s also too much for a picture-book age child to absorb on their own, so it becomes ideal as a read-aloud-and-discuss. Followed, of course, by a sparrow finding expedition, photographs, drawings, and chirping!

So much to love here.

Also, would be brilliant in schools. (Do they still do nature as a subject?)

 

 

Purchased at Books Galore, in Port Perry.

Support indies!!

this is not a review: ‘when we were alone’, by david a. robertson (pics, julie flett)

 
A little girl and her grandmother tend a garden and as they do the girl asks simple questions about the beautiful clothing the grandmother wears, the luxurious style of her hair, the language she whispers as she feeds a bird…

The grandmother tells what life was like when she was the child’s age and still lived at home, in her “community”. She talks about friends and traditions and then refers to the school she went to, described only as being “far away from home” where things were very different. The child asks why they cut her hair, why Cree was a forbidden language and each time the grandmother offers a gentle sliver of truth, ending with some version of: “They wanted us to be like everybody else.”

The title is a reference to the instinct for their sense (and survival) of ‘self’, the small pleasures they found in things like the colour of leaves and braiding grass into their shorn hair.

I love this book for its story of courage and strength, but also for its structure, the rhythm of the questions and answers, the repetition of certain lines, especially the reference to a school that was “far away from home”… (which surely begs the question from any young reader/listener as to why  it was so far away). I love the beautiful illustrations by Julie Flett (the colour palette, all rich earth tones and vivid brights alternating with the institutional monotones of muted greys and brown). But mostly I love this book because it invites children who know nothing about the history of residential schools to ask questions of their own, and so maybe, and gently, we can begin a conversation long overdue.

When We Were Alone  can be purchased on-line from Blue Heron Books and Hunter Street Books, which I only mention because they’re two of my faves.

Support indies!

this is not a review: ‘meatless?’, by sarah elton

 
I so enjoyed Meatless? : A Fresh Look at What You Eat…. a book (but also a really lovely, enlightening and important conversation) about eating meat or not eating meat… the choice being ours and the emphasis being on choice. (There is nothing, nothing, nothing judgy or even suggestive of one ‘side’ being righter than the other. It’s merely info.)

The author, Sarah Elton, is a well known food writer. She also eats meat, although she truly understands the ‘other’ side. This, in my view, is the ideal perspective by which to write such a book. Balanced, in other words.

It’s picture book size with loads of gorgeous illustrations by Julie McLaughlin, and tons of easy to digest info. Really the most brilliant tool to start a chat with kids about veggie-ism, before they get their ideas on the schoolyard or to clarify some already-got misconceptions.

A smattering of things of note:

♦ It was Pythagoras that came up with the germ of the idea that became veggie-ism. He felt animals were reincarnated humans.

♦ Why is meat the MAIN part of a meal? And why, in a restaurant, do we order ‘the chicken’ that comes with the lentils and asparagus…. instead of ordering the ‘lentils and asparagus’ that come with chicken?? (This one item is a whole conversation in itself in my world.)

♦ 20 million pigs are killed EACH YEAR in Canada.

♦ 14.5% of greenhouse gas emissions come from the production of meat and dairy. This is more than from cars. (Kids will love the ‘how’ of this one!)

♦ There’s a terrific section on food combos that create complete proteins (for the days you choose not to eat meat). Beans, rice, legumes… nut cheeses. All of which are equally nutritious in terms of protein, but much cheaper. Good for students and families who need to make their food dollars stretch. A few meatless days a week = money saved.

♦ From the section titled ‘Telling Your Friends and Family’, this struck me as a fair warning: “Meat eaters sometimes take offense or react defensively when they hear someone is a vegetarian…”  Equally valid, that veggie people sometimes need to stop preaching. (And this is the best thing about the book…. no defensiveness, no preaching. The message is that there’s no way to be wrong, just misinformed. And that judgment serves no purpose.)

♦ Gallo Pinto is a beans and rice dish that I want to make. The name means spotted rooster.

♦ There is a small section on animal welfare, the reality of factory farms,  overcrowded stalls, pens, and feedlots, and animals that can barely move.

And before everyone starts wringing their hands about how the wee ones mustn’t be traumatized by the truth and that surely it’s better they believe ‘meat’ has nothing to do with animals… that, instead, it arrives by pelicans, already saran-wrapped at Costco or delivered with pickles in a burger under golden arches… and that the animals that are used to create such happy ‘bargain food’ have indeed lived sunny lives… let’s remind ourselves that country children grow up knowing where meat comes from and they somehow manage to understand, and survive the info..

Tell kids the hard truth about unethical meat farming, I say. And, harder still, tell ourselves while we’re at it.

Like Elton, I’m a meat eater, though it’s not a huge part of my diet and I can easily go a week without missing it or even noticing that I haven’t eaten any. I’m not a vegetarian but I do care about where my meat comes from. I care about how the animal lived and died and I care about its food source. I care about over-production and over-consumption and waste and I continue to hope that the big players, the golden arches, the chicken purveyors and bacon mongers, will one day insist their meat suppliers follow more humane practices because, mostly, I care about responsible farming practices. I hope, too, that maybe some of us will consider the effects of supporting the alternative. And given that information, we make our choices.

That’s really what this book is about… the idea of informed choices.

Meatless? : A Fresh Look at What You Eat  can be ordered online at Hunter Street Books.

Support indies!

this is not a review: ‘what milly did’, by elise moser

 
Milly Zantow falls into the category of People You’ve Never Heard of Who Have Changed the World. In this case, the world of recycling. Because Milly Zantow is the person who created a tiny thing called the global recycling standard for plastic,  more commonly known as the-numbers-inside-those-little-triangles-on-your-water-bottles-and-stuff.

It’s what made plastic recycling possible.

But it’s the HOW this all came about that’s jaw dropping. What Milly Did  (a childrens’ book for all ages, including adults in my opinion) by Elise Moser, is an extraordinary story about a woman who, at age sixty or so, decides to do something about the growing problem of plastic in landfills.

9781554988938_1024x1024Turns out that plastic wasn’t recycled because no one thought it could be done.

Enter Milly, an ordinary woman, raised on a farm, who has no experience in anything even remotely related to anything to do with recycling but who just really believes that something can be done.

So she says pfffft  to the naysayers and starts reading about plastic; she studies it, takes courses, learns everything she can then cashes in her life insurance policy, buys a gigantic grinding machine and opens a company called E-Z Recycling where she and a few others do much of the grunt work by hand, seven days a week.

“She called the Borden Dairy Company in Milwaukee and asked them how they manufactured their plastic milk jugs. What did they do when they made a mistake? she asked. They told her they just melted the deformed jug down and reblew it. That was an ‘Aha!’ moment for Milly.”

Moser captures Milly’s spirit as a woman who is in no way ego driven. Nor is becoming rich her motivation; she simply wants to make sense of trash and to that end she does whatever she can to help people recycle, including establishing programs in nearby towns.

Eventually her vision catches on. Various community groups form, tipping fees for landfill sites are established and in 1988 her system for grading plastic is adopted by the Society of Plastics Industry, which means a standardized recycling practice across North America.

The story, of course, isn’t quite that simple. There are many hurdles along the way, people who laugh, who say that what she’s proposing is impossible, and then there are the times themselves, the 1970’s and early 80’s, which aren’t overly receptive, or even friendly, to the idea of recycling. Moser has done an excellent job of telling Milly’s story against this back drop of time and place.

A clever addition to the story are sidebars throughout the book, telling about bridges and boats made of plastic bottles, stats on current plastic usage and where it all goes, yo-yo trivia!, the ABCs of modern recycling, innovations in biodegradable plastic… all bite-sized, very readable for any age, and all to the accompaniment of sweet b&w illustrations by Scott Ritchie.

That this is such an unknown story is mind-boggling. I’m grateful to Elise Moser for telling it. It needs to be shared. I hope the book will find its ways to schools and to homes, not only as an eye-opener to an important piece of history, but to open at least two kinds of conversation… One,  about the problem of a planet full of garbage and, two, the power we have as individuals  to make the world better.

Finally, what maybe I love most about this story is what Milly didn’t  do… she didn’t complain, blame, whinge or whine or suggest that this problem to solve was someone else’s job… 

Or that the difficulties she faced were someone else’s fault.

She just got on with it.

The world could use more Milly.