About the Holiday
November is all about picture books thanks to Picture Book Month founder author and storyteller Dianne de Las Casas and co-founders author/illustrators Katie Davis, Elizabeth O. Dulemba, Wendy Martin, and author Tara Lazar. This month-long international literacy initiative celebrates print picture books and all that they offer to young (and even older) readers. With gorgeous artwork and compelling stories, picture books open the world to children in surprising ways as they entertain, explain, excite, and help children learn empathy and understanding.
I’d like to thank Eerdman’s Books for Young Readers for sending me a copy of A Head Full of Birds for review consideration. All opinions on the book are my own.
A Head Full of Birds
Written by Alexandra Garibal | Illustrated by Sibylle Delacroix | Translated from the French by Vineet Lal
Nanette is a little girl with “a head full of birds.” She mixed strange foods together, can spend hours looking at an empty spider’s web and “rocks back and forth, to and fro, fluttering her fingers like butterflies.” The kids at school taunt her, calling her “stupid” and treating her meanly. But Nanette doesn’t pay attention to them. One boy in her class, Noah, joins in. But one day while tossing paper airplanes during class, the teacher catches him and makes him sit up front.
This means sharing a table with Nanette, which makes him angry. While pulling out his chair, “he pushes her out of irritation,” which causes her pencil to slide across her drawing of a bird. Nanette is disappointed, whispering “Oh. He won’t fly anymore.” Noah finds this ridiculous and tells her that drawings of birds can’t fly, but Nanette already knows. “‘The drawing doesn’t fly, the bird does,'” she answers.
That day after school, Noah watches as Nanette sets colorful little origami boats to sail down the rain-washed curb. He thinks it looks “so pretty.” The next day, it’s still raining, and during recess Noah sees Nanette standing in the middle of the school yard without her boots catching raindrops. His friends are calling him stupid, but he grabs her shoes and rushes out to bring her back in. But Nanette is happy. She takes her boots and fills them with water running off the roof. They both hide a boot in their coats and run back inside for class.
On the stairs, someone bumps into Noah, spilling his boot. Noah is angry that their plan is ruined, but Nanette tells him it’s okay, that one is enough. She passes him a tiny origami boat, and he drops it into her boot. “The boat twists and twirls, dancing merrily across the water. And it’s so pretty.” Now Noah and Nanette are friends, and “together, they look after the birds that nest in their heads.”
While quietly straightforward, Alexandra Garibal’s story affects poignancy on multiple levels. Readers are first introduced to Nanette, a girl with neurodiversity who is happy in her observations and interactions with the world while also self-confident enough to ignore the comments of her classmates. Readers see Noah participating in the ridicule, but when he is moved to sit next to Nanette, readers begin to understand that it is he who needs to see the world differently, not Nanette. Children may feel that Noah already embodies this empathy as it doesn’t take long before he appreciates the beauty Nanette brings to their world.
While he at first feels he must protect her, running out with her boots and aiming to take her back inside from the rain, he again learns that her actions have meaning, and when the boot he’s carrying spills on the way back to class, he now feels the same disappointment of a project ruined that Nanette felt with her bird drawing. With Nanette and Noah’s conspiratorial goofing off in class (and, bravely, in the front row!), Garibal brings the story full circle while infusing it with growth and joy for both characters as they go forward as friends.
Sibylle Delacroix’s lovely colored-pencil illustrations reveal Nanette as a shining light in the world and in her classroom. She is first shown gazing upward as if the sun is on her face, next with colorful butterflies, and then at school in a bright yellow raincoat, while the background is drawn in gray and the other kids in a single shade of red, all except Noah, who has brown hair and blue glasses, signifying to readers that perhaps he is a bit different as well.
The two children’s growing friendship takes place against a gray-scale background, putting the focus on both their separation from their environment as well as their similarity to each other. Other visual clues in clothing and other elements also point to Nanette and Noah’s similarity, which can invite kids to find and talk about them. A particularly moving spread comes as the two children watch the little boat float in the boot, their two smiling faces reflected in the water. Turning the page, readers see the imagination Nanette and Noah share as they ride in an origami boat pointing out paper bird above.
This beautiful friendship story speaks not only to the acceptance and understanding of neurodiversity but of all the creative and different ways in which people see the world. A Head Full of Birds will fill your heart and resonate long after the story is over. The book invites multiple re-readings and will generate much thought and discussion. It is a must for all home, classroom, school, and public libraries.
Ages 4 – 8
Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2022 | ISBN 978-0802855961
About the Author
Alexandra Garibal is a French children’s author and editor. She has written over sixty picture books, novels, and magazine articles, and her titles have been translated for Chinese and Spanish readers. A Head Full of Birds is Alexandra’s English-language debut. Follow her on Instagram @alexandragaribal.
About the Illustrator
Sibylle Delacroix is the illustrator of Tears, Prickly Jenny, Grains of Sand, and Blanche Hates the Night (all Owlkids). She graduated from the ERG Saint-Luc School of Graphic Research in Brussels and worked for many years as a graphic designer before becoming a full-time illustrator. Sibylle lives in France. Follow Sibylle on Instagram @sibylledelacroix.
About the Translator
Vineet Lal is a literary translator of books from French to English, including A Perfect Spot (Eerdmans) and The Secret Life of Writers (Weidenfeld & Nicholson). He studied French at Princeton University and the University of Edinburgh. Vineet lives in Scotland. Follow him on Twitter @vineet_uk.
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