A quirky, misunderstood kid pursues his interests despite peer pressure and parental disapproval – and achieves something great. That plotline is the premise of countless biographies, including that of naturalist Roger Tory Peterson. In For the Birds, Peggy Thomas and illustrator Laura Jacques share Peterson’s story with young readers.
Growing up in Jamestown, New Yorkin the early twentieth century, Roger Tory Peterson was a misfit. He preferred exploring the woods and collecting bird nests to playing with his peers. His unusual hobbies exasperated his father. But one insightful teacher encouraged Roger’s interests in nature and naturalist art. As a young man, he studied art in New Yorkand quickly won recognition as a bird painter. He wrote and illustrated A Field Guide to the Birds, the first bird identification book for lay audiences, which made bird-watching a popular pastime. Later, Peterson advocated for bird conservation and helped ban the use of DDT in the United States.
Together, Thomas and Jacques capture the marvel of both Peterson’s life and the creatures he loved. For the Birds has more and denser text than most picture books; for this reason, it often reads more like a middle-grade biography with illustrations than a picture-book biography. However, Thomas’s prose, with its reassuring repetitions, lends itself well to reading out loud. Her similes and metaphors often link her subject with birds: as a boy, he was “as think and gawky as a fledgling egret.” “A flock of friends” helped Peterson complete a later edition of his field guide. With vivid, arresting representations of various bird species, many of Laura Jacques’ illustrations are themselves splendid examples of naturalist art. Often, Peterson and his surroundings – a city street, his peers, an easel – seem to occupy another dimension than the birds that fascinate him. This suggests nature’s ability to help us transcend our immediate concerns and enter another sphere. For the Birds should introduce children to a world of wonders just outside their door.
Dorothy A. Dahm