Glancing around eagerly, we finally spotted them: four black-capped chickadees hopping between branches in the shoreline shrubbery. Just across a narrow arm of the lake, an American robin skimmed over the snow. And there!—the crimson flash of a male northern cardinal in a backyard tree. We stopped to listen as the tiny chickadees, rotund in their fluffed plumage, called back and forth to each other: “Fee-bee!” The robin’s distant chuckle overlapped with a cardinal’s echoing “cheer, cheer, cheer!” As we stood, grinning and shivering in the barren winter landscape, the birds sang for the imminence of spring.
Birds Every Child Should Know is the kind of book that speaks to readers at every level. As was common in natural history guides of her era, Blanchan incorporated personal observations, insights, and folklore along with life history facts and scientific data on each of more than one hundred common North American bird species. Each profile is just a few pages long, perfect for a quick read at bedtime, during a car ride, or—ideally—while outside among the birds themselves.
Blanchan’s lilted phrasing is old-fashioned but enduring, much like our favorite classic children’s stories and poetry. This makes the book fun to read aloud, requiring children to seek just the right intonation and pace to fully capture the author’s voice.
“Rather than live where the skies are gray and the air is cold, this adventurous little warbler will travel two thousand miles or more to follow the sun…. Of course they do not undertake long journeys merely for pleasure, as wealthy tourists do. They must migrate to find food; and as insects are most plentiful in warm weather, you see why these atoms of animation keep in perpetual motion.”
Children today are accustomed to books as bold and busy as computer screens. Don’t let the simple layout of Birds Every Child Should Know be a deterrent. Blanchan’s language will bring vivid pictures to mind—no graphics required. The University of Iowa Press has also tucked twenty-four detailed sketches into the heart of the book. Graphic artist Christine Stetter’s work is like the delicious cream in the middle of the cookie. (You can find several editions from other publishers, some with photos. I have not looked at copies of these.)
Educators and conservationists of the Progressive Era responded by promoting nature study in schools. Children deserved to experience nature directly, they said, rather than through what Blanchan called “training of the brain.” The more spontaneous and unstructured this interaction could be, said Blanchan, the better. She envisioned that time spent outside would spur “the growth of the heart,” maturing children with a sympathetic connection to nature and motivation to preserve it for the future.
The United States is now overwhelmingly urban. Once again, many Americans express concern about children’s lack of “green time.” For them, Neltje Blanchan’s advice will still ring true. Slow down and watch the birds.