Page 45 Review by Stephen
"I loved the little bedroom on the top floor of our pointy house. In summer, swifts nested in the roof above it and I watched their fledglings' first flights from its window. They were perfect from the very start, soaring high to slice the sky with crescent wings."
What superbly weighted cadence that final clause carries, darting up twice on "high" and "sky", suggesting the power, speed and reach of the swifts' sweeping trajectory, as well as their agile ability to "slice" with energy and precision.
That the fledglings were "perfect from the very start" is equally well worded. First sentences, I'm sure, are far from easy; but as more challenging third sentences go, that is a belter. Everything that follows is informed by it.
You'd be forgiven for thinking - given the manner in which I've chosen to introduce this eloquently expressed, profoundly moving and finally uplifting picture book - that you were about to launch into an idyllic memory of childhood delight, inspired by (and a tribute to) the almost inexpressible wonders of nature. You'd be forgiven because you're not entirely wrong, but this is far more than that.
Cathy Fisher's illuminations will make your souls soar as high as these birds' constant, life-long flight; and your heart dip and twist, then beat again, in time to Nicola Davies' almost impossibly successful evocation of what it can mean for a young child to anticipate the birth of a sibling with whom they long keenly and excitedly to share all things ebullient...
"That's how it will be, I thought, me and my sister, racing and chasing, screaming with laughter and delight."
... Only to discover, abruptly, that their newborn brother or sister doesn't seem so immediately perfect after all.
"I could see that she would never race or chase. She didn't even scream. Her dark eyes looked at me and she lay quite still."
Here the air-borne freedom of the swifts lies in stark visual contrast to a baby who is beautiful, cocooned in soft cloth, but seen from behind the bars of her cradle, with wire-like coils of black and white scrawled above, then dragging the whole down into potential darkness.
As she gazes up into sky from the grass which bursts with dappled flecks of gentle summer colour, the older sibling's initial, outright rejection is expressed with heartfelt regret but a candour which is vital, for this tale is told to "open up the subject of disability for young readers" so that communication can begin.
Where it takes you several pages later, however, after the swifts continue to screech, sweep and circle while the baby sister lies still, is... well, it's perfect.
The reunification through understanding is inspired by the discovery of fledgling beached, as it were, on the lawn. It lies there, stranded, for swifts are incapable of taking flight except from above.
Clearly, the bird is going to need a helping hand... But that's all it will take.
I wish I had even more interior art for you here. There's a close-up against black of the fledgling's head and winged shoulder, its glistening black eye reflecting the white-clouds and blue sky it yearns for once again, and the face of its new friend. The image is echoed a few pages later, and that one I do have for you, life and love radiating from the soft skin, lips and eyes.
Such immaculate structure!
I'm sorry it took me a couple of years to find this book for you. You may well have already discovered it for yourself. Our primary focus - for which we have more vocation than a monastery full of monks - is on comics and graphic novels, and so is the focus of the solicitations sent to us by our suppliers. But we are equally passionate about all forms of art, especially when created by those who have something important to say and the skills with which to say it. So occasionally I stray upon something new, outside our immediate arena, to add to our burgeoning selection of illustrated prose within our Young Readers already established graphic novel section. For this one, I'm indebted to our dear friend Helena Pielichaty, Page 45 customer, author and passionate patron of reading.
For another all-ages picture book which has something vital to say (albeit in a completely different tone!), please Sarah McIntyre's THE NEW NEIGHBOURS, reviewed.