Reviewed by Grant McCreary on February 7th, 2014.
Most birders are familiar with the story of Roger Tory Peterson: How a boy born in Jamestown, New York fell in love with nature, pursued a career in art, created a revolutionary field guide to birds, and became the world’s preeminent naturalist and spokesperson for the environment. In fact, we probably hear about it so often that we become inured to it. But it really is a fantastic story, and one worth telling. And Peggy Thomas does so in For the Birds: The Life of Roger Tory Peterson, a delightful, beautifully illustrated adaptation of Peterson’s story for children (suggested reading level of 8 and up).
Thomas tells of Peterson’s life, from early childhood to his death in 1996. We learn about some of his earliest natural history investigations, like keeping moth cocoons over winter (which ended up prematurely hatching due to the warmth inside the house!). We next find Peterson on a walk in the woods that will end up changing the whole course of his life. As Thomas describes it:
On one hike up Swede Hill, Roger saw a clump of feathers sitting low in a tree. He watched it for several minutes, but it did not move. It must be dead, Roger thought. Silently he crept up to the brown bundle and reached out a finger. With one touch, it burst into life and flew out of sight. Roger’s heart raced as fast as the startled flicker’s. So alive, thought Roger. How wonderful to be free to fly anywhere. That was the moment Roger knew he would spend his life with birds.
The period of time up to the publication of his first field guide receives most of the attention, but some very important aspects of his post-guide life are included as well. Using Peterson’s campaign against the pesticide DDT as an example, For the Birds emphasizes that Peterson did everything he could to help birds.
What really sets this book apart are the illustrations by Laura Jacques. On each right-hand page is a striking, full-page painting. Most depict Peterson doing something mentioned in the text, like setting up a camera overlooking a bird feeder or working on a plate for his field guide. But whether the scene is indoors or atop a mountain amongst migrating Broad-winged Hawks, each painting is dramatic and serves to pull the reader into the story. My favorite, and one I wouldn’t mind having a print of on my wall, is the double-page spread of Peterson and the flicker. I’d love to show the painting here, but that would spoil the “wow!” moment you get when you turn the page and see it for the first time.
In addition to the paintings, black-and-white ink drawings pepper the pages of For the Birds. The inside covers also have a wonderful “Topography of a Birder” diagram with a line drawing of Peterson with things like binoculars and field guide labeled. Kids may not fully get it, but adult readers – at least those familiar with field guides – will get a chuckle out of it.
I found only two minor issues with this book. The first is that none of the illustrations have captions or labels. However, for the most part, they depict things mentioned in the story. So when you read about Roger and friends finding Snowy Owls in a field, you can assume that the white birds shown are those selfsame owls. But there are still plenty of birds shown in the background that are not identified or mentioned anywhere. However – and I have no idea if this was intentional – I can see how this could subtly encourage young readers to try to identify these birds for themselves. The other issue was an incorrectly named “purple-breasted gallinule”.
For the Birds: The Life of Roger Tory Peterson is noteworthy for its artwork alone. But I hope that it will serve to entice young people to read the story, where they will find someone their own age who followed his passion and left an indelible mark on the world. Even more, by emphasizing Peterson’s desire to help birds this book introduces the concept of, and need for, conservation. I would’ve loved this book as a child and would highly recommend it.
Disclosure: The item reviewed here was a complementary review copy provided by the author. But the opinion expressed here is my own, it has not been influenced in any way.