The title of this book “How to Make a Bird” shortlisted for CBCA 2021 Book of the Year Award, conjured up a memory of my 10-year-old self and my grandpa on the roof of his house. Grandpa is fixing a loose roof tile and I am sitting next to him. As I stare out into the distant blue sky I can feel a light breeze on my face, I close my eyes and with outstretched arms imagine myself soaring like a bird among the clouds. Years later that daydream returned in the form of a sweet deja vu when my toddler child declared that he wanted to fly like a bird. Together we drew plans and made wings from sticks and bedsheets, lovingly pieced together with glue, string, imagination and a generous measure of infectious wide-eyed enthusiasm…
“How to Make a Bird” – The Review
“How to Make a Bird” starts with a desire and a comparable hands-on construction project to make a bird. A young girl uses whatever she can find in her environment – bones, stones, feathers and methodically assembles it, not forgetting “a heart that beats faster than any human heart“. But when the physical bird is built the child concedes that it is nothing more than “this silent, still, shape of a bird, cold as a statue” and that she needs to give it something else that will make it fly, something that is not from the physical realm. Once this ‘something’ is found, the girl sees her bird “tremble as it fills, inside its tiny, racing heart, with the dreams only a bird can dream” and eventually it soars leaving the girl alone at the open window. Imagine you are that girl…
"And feel your slowly beating heart fill with a kind of sadness, a kind of happiness. For this is when you will know that you have really made a bird."
This story’s genre is prose-poem. Both lyrical and poetic, its poignant words and melodious lines float harmoniously in a constellation of metaphors. Meg McKinlay tells of her being influenced by the Japanese aesthetics and philosophical ideas of the floating world. The latter, known as ukiyo, contemplates (amongst other things) daily life as ephemeral and evanescent – an illusion, a transitory reality. One of the Japanese characters used to write “uki” (憂世 ) means “sorrow” or “melancholy”. And melancholy is what this book evokes when the bird disappears forever, leaving us both sad and happy.
“How to Make a Bird” is an ode to creative expression. The creative process can never rely on mechanical skill alone, it needs something more, something that’s hard to define with words, but carries with it some part of the artist’s heart and soul. And only work imbued with this enigmatic quality goes soaring high into the world and touches the hearts and souls of others. As with any good story, one can read other things into it and find one’s individual meaning and truth.
For example, I identify with it as a parent of a beautiful boy, whose entire world revolved around the attention and love of his mum. That same boy is now a teenager who is notably distanced and interested in his friends’ company far more than that of mine. Having put my heart and soul into raising him, I will reluctantly have to let him fly from the nest and discover his own way in life which fills my heart with the very same “kind of sadness and a kind of happiness” that this story speaks about; the sadness of losing that togetherness we once shared and the happiness of seeing him grow up and become his own person.
Meg McKinlay – The Author
Meg McKinlay is an Australian author, writing for both children and adults and presently living in Freemantle in Western Australia. Her writing ranges from picture books, chapter books and young adult novels to poetry. “I had always been the girl who focused quietly on the spine of a leaf while other kids ran around squealing,” reminisced Meg of her childhood. Before becoming a writer she has worked as a teacher, translator and even a swimming instructor. Meg has a PhD in Japanese Literature and taught Australian Literature and Japanese at the University of Western Australia.
Matt Ottley – The Illustrator
Matt Ottley who illustrated “How to Make a Bird” is a fascinating creative persona, a modern-day Renaissance man. He writes, illustrates and also sets some picture books and poetry to the scores of his own music composed for small chamber orchestras and soprano singers.
For me creativity is creativity. I’ve never made much of a distinction between paining and writing music and from my earliest memories I have alsways created muysic in my imaginiation.Matt Ottley
The musical accompaniments that Matt composes range in style from classical to rock, blues and jazz. Matt devised “The Sound of Picture Books” program to help people relate to ways that words, images and music can combine for a richer sensory experience. It is a collaboration between Matt (illustrator & composer) with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra, The Literature Centre and Yamaha Music, and entails a series of multi-modal workshops that brings Matt’s published books to life. The examples and excerpts of his brilliant works can be browsed on Matt Ottley’s website.
Matt’s illustrations for “How to Make a Bird” (which you can browse at your leisure below) permits one into the girl’s beautiful world, “bringing it to gorgeous life” as Meg McKinlay put it. He can illustrate air in a way that makes you breathe deeper to inhale the freshness of it and vast open spaces in a way that makes you want to jump inside this picture book and sink your toes in the sands of a sunset beach.
I fell in love with this book at first sight of its title page, which shows the drawing plans for constructing a bird that looks like something Leonardo DaVinci would have drawn in his famous Notebooks of the Renaissance era. Enjoy browsing the illustrations below but be assured that photos do not do it justice. If there’s a picture book you contemplate buying I suggest this should be the one.
PS: So, I hear you ask, what happened to your son’s birdwing project? Did he take flight like the bird in this story? Indeed he did. For the next week, he ran around the backyard flapping his bedsheet wings, squawking and soaring like a bald eagle. And although those precious little feet never left the ground, his head was soaring in the clouds. He had become the bird.
Imagination is a powerful thing, it seeds the creative process of writers, artists and musicians, their creations growing like children with who they nurture and form a strong protective attachment. At some stage, they too have to set their creations free and send them out into the world to see if they will fly or fall short. It takes courage. You want to protect your children, but it’s only when you let go that they can grow and shine a light on the world. I’m glad Meg and Matt decided to let this collaborative creation take flight, and I’m delighted to shine a little light on this moving story.
Title: How to Make a Bird
Author: Meg McKinlay
Illustrator: Matt Ottley
Publisher: Walker Books Australia
Publication Date: 20 October 2020