21 October 2011

Cybils Review: Hummingbirds: Facts and Folklore from the Americas

This striking book takes a very interesting approach to the subject of hummingbirds (which, incidentally, make up the second-largest group of birds in the Americas.) It combines factual information with folktales. And quilts! When I first held this book in my hand, I felt like I was looking at one of those trick pictures with two images. When you look at the picture above, what do you see first: the subject of the book or the fantastically crafted cover? Personal prerspective might dictate how a reader is initially drawn to this book, but in the end, the merger of fact and craft is an attractive one.

At the heart of this book, as the title suggests, is the mighty hummingbird. This tiny bird, which seems to defy logic, holds a fascination not just for author Jeanette Larson, but clearly intrigued and inspired several North and South American native cultures as well. Larson starts by presenting the scientific data. Size and physical characteristics, plumage, habitat, courtship--these are some of the subjects which introduce the hummingbird to the reader. Each factual chapter is followed by a pourquoi tale--a "why" tale--which is relevant to the initial discussion. "Vocalization" is followed by Why the Hummingbird Has No Song, a Navajo tale; "Migration" is followed by the Aztec Legend Why the Hummingbird Migrates to Mexico. The hummingbird is not always a hero, such as in Why the Hummingbird Drinks Nectar, a Hitchiti Tale from the southeastern United States that bears a resemblance to The Tortoise and the Hare. But whether hero or rogue, the diversity of folktales across the length and breadth of North and South America is a testament to the ubiquity of the bird.

How the Hummingbird Got Its Colors

Special mention needs to be made of the quilts created for the book by Adrienne Yorinks. Using a combination of spot illustrations--or should I say, 'spot quilts'--to break up the scientific text, and then double page spreads, like the one above, to provide a background to the folktales, she has crafted a unique-looking book. Even the quilts themselves, which incorporate acrylic paint, collage, and photo transfers look unlike any quilts I have ever seen. They are vibrant, and at times unexpected, much like the hummingbird itself. I love the fact, mentioned in Yorinks' Art Notes, that hummingbirds can "breed with other species of hummingbirds, creating one-of-a-kind hybrids." All part of the hummingbird mystique which writers and scientists have been trying to capture since the Nazca civilization.

Nazca Lines, in Peru, created as a quilt in this book

In her introduction, Larsen says, "To fully understand any subject, it's useful to gather knowledge about it through every discipline, whether factual resources or stories." By taking this approach she has written a book which will have appeal for researchers as well as readers of tales and hopefully cross pollinate interest between the two.


Jil Casey said...

I love textile illustrations, there aren't enough of them!

Kara Schaff Dean said...

I find that sometimes the textile don't reproduce well as illustrations but in this case I thought they were rather spectacular. Thanks for stopping by!

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