The Woman Who Turned Children into Birds
David Almond, a seasoned author with many books to his credit, and Laura Carlin, an equally prolific illustrator, are teamed up in this strange little story about having the courage to try new things.
One day a woman comes to town. She claims to be able to turn children into birds. Hence the title of the book. All of the adults—the teachers, the police, the parents—think this is the most horrific idea ever. “It’s just plain daft. It’s total rubbish. It’s piffle, twaddle, balderdash.”
The children, of course, are intrigued. One brave young soul (with a very specific name: Dorothy Carr) risks the ridicule and steps forward from the nay-sayers. Nanty Solo (the bird-changing woman) casts a spell on Dorothy, and Dorothy is indeed turned into a swallow. She flies around for a few minutes and then lands back in young girl form. Her dad is the only adult who doesn’t seem very fazed by her adventure and inquires, “Did you go far, love?” It’s not clear why this adult is more accepting than the others, and we never hear from him again.
Word spreads among the children that this Nanty Solo woman really does turn children into birds. By making some marks on the ground with her cane and whispering, “Go on. Be happy. Up you go,” the children get a brief but unique out-of-body experience.
The author makes a point to name each child and the bird they’ve become. Colin Fox is a sparrow. Susan M’Beppe is a goldfinch. Walter Pope is a rook. Wolfgang Hurst is a parakeet. All of them, and dozens more, flying around together. Yet while the author is specific and precise about the children/bird match-ups, Carlin’s illustrations of the birds are generic and nondescript.
Meanwhile, the adults are all yelling chastising comments at the child/birds. They blame Nanty Solo for corrupting the town and tell her to go away. All she says in response is, “What on earth are you frightened of?” Before she leaves, she launches another round of children into the air. She walks away to the sounds of the children whooping and laughing and flying. The End.
This is a classic kids-versus-the-world book, and it’s not really clear who wins. On the one hand, the kids had their day in the sun, so to speak. On the other hand, the adults couldn’t deal with it and ran the threat off. Why the parents were so opposed to this novelty is anybody’s guess. One might assume that this is a dreary and controlling place. The illustrations seem to lend to that interpretation. The adult world is delivered in black smudgy charcoal drawings, a helter-skelter drab sort of place. The child/bird world in contrast has warm yellow and fiery orange to spark the liftoff.
Carlin’s illustration style is childlike, meaning the drawings look like ones children themselves might have rendered in art class. She has earned some recognition for her style, winning some important illustration awards over the years. Still, it is a matter of personal preference and some readers may not resonate with her approach.
The Woman Who Turned Children into Birds pulls together an odd story with an equally odd illustration style, but with mixed results. Some seem to really appreciate the combination, others, not so much. In the end, it’s up in the air, and probably the child/birds would agree with readers that at least it’s a change of pace from what they’re used to.