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Birdsong - tweet all about it!

Feathers fly in riotously raucous picture book Birdsong by Ellie Sandall


Posted: 30 May 2011
by Helen McKay-Ferguson

Can you summarise the plot of Birdsong in ten words?
Birds sing together, biggest rules the roost, gets his comeuppance!

Where did the inspiration come from?
I first had the idea when I was a student in Bath –  I used to go to the aviary in Victoria Park to sketch the birds, and I was listening to all the different calls and thinking it would be lovely to include them all in a story somehow. It seemed very comical, as one bird would start squawking, then others would join in until they were creating a din!

Are you a keen ornithologist?
I do enjoy watching birds, and they are one of my favourite subjects to draw, but I can’t say that I know an awful lot about them. My granddad is more knowledgeable, and he lent me a book called A Field Guide To The Birds Of Britain And Europe which contained phonetic bird calls. I used this as a starting point to come up with my own bird calls.

Do the birds on the branch remind you of anyone?
Not really, though my Granddad did try to match each bird to members of our family, and decided the owl must be my nan as she is ‘a wise old bird’!

Are the birds in the book real species of bird?
No, but I did sketch real birds when researching for the book, particularly some of the birds of paradise in the Natural History Museum, so some of their features have crept into my own birds! I consciously didn’t make them real birds as I would have felt obliged to match them with their real calls, which would have limited me in terms of finding rhyming pairs.

What do you like about birds?
I think it’s the shape of them that appeals to me most. I really like their skinny legs and the way they move, especially the little ones which hop along on both legs. I also like ducks and the way they waddle. I find them comical to watch, and I love the sheer variety of colours and shapes and patterns that are found. I also love to hear them singing first thing in the morning and in the evenings in summer time.

Did you keep birds as a child?
When I was six, I had a blue budgie called Percy. He was a lot of fun –  he used to ride around on my shoulder or sit in my mother’s hair! We had a doll’s house which he would go inside and climb up the stairs, then happily sit on the banister. He had a variety of noises in his repertoire, from gentle cheeping, to a more insistent trill when he wanted his food bowl filling up, to a loud and repetitive squawk (my mother used to put a tea towel over his cage at this point to shut him up). We got another budgie called Camilla as a friend for Percy and, though she was never very friendly towards people, she and Percy got on very well and would happily spend their days grooming each other. I think the two little birds at the start of Birdsong might be my budgies, as they become very friendly in the book!

The book reminds me a little of Old MacDonald Had A Farm. What do you make of the comparison?
I’d not thought about its similarity to Old Macdonald before! I suppose it follows a similar pattern, in that a new sound is introduced on each page, but it was not a conscious decision. I think a lot of books and rhymes follow this kind of rhythm, and it is one that children are familiar with and enjoy.

What do you think would appeal to a child about the repetition of all the different sounds?
I think it’s the fact that they know what’s coming next, and so a child would soon learn the pattern and be able to join in with it. It’s a good excuse to make some noise!

The saying ‘the hair that broke the camel’s back’ springs to mind on reading the story (‘pride comes before a fall’ is another)…
People have read various messages into the story, which is really interesting- I wasn’t consciously trying to convey any particular message when writing the story, it just sort of came out that way! Both of those sayings fit really well, and in fact the last line of the story was at one point ‘pride comes before a fall’, but I didn’t want to make it too obvious a message. It has also been mentioned that the book could be saying that you don’t have to be big or loud to make a difference, in the case of the butterfly! I personally really like the fact that although each bird is an individual, both in the way they look and the way they sound, they can all still work together to sing their song. I think this carries a lovely message of not all having to be the same to be able to fit in and be part of the group.

What do you think happens next?
I like to think that the big bird learns his lesson and the rest of the birds let him join in with their song on another, more sturdy branch! I don’t think he’s mean, just a little over-enthusiastic, and I would hope that the other birds allow him to redeem himself.

Which are your favourite spreads in the book and why?
I think my favourite spread is the page where it says ‘Two more birds have made the trip. Kirri! Kirri! Kip Kip Kip.’ This is the one page where all the birds (apart from the big one) are singing, and so we get to hear the whole song. I also love the simplicity in design of the first page, where the small pink bird is introduced. I am really pleased with the back cover illustration, too.  This was the last one I did, and by then I had really got to know the birds, and felt a little nostalgic that this was the last time I was going to draw them!

How would you describe your artistic style?
I use a mixture of watercolour, pastels, pastel pencils and collage in my illustrations. In Birdsong I consciously used pastels for the tree and grass, and watercolour for the birds, to help differentiate them from their surroundings. I studied Graphic Design in Bath, and I think my work had quite a strong sense of design in terms of page layout. I really like the use of white space, as it allows the important bits to stand out! White space was particularly important for me in Birdsong, as the pages might easily have become cluttered due to the number of bird calls.

What were your favourite picture books as a child?
I remember when I was very young I had a Mother Goose nursery rhyme book which I used to get my mother to read to me a lot. I could recite most of the rhymes from an early age, from looking at the pictures. One of my absolute favourites was Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar. I also loved The Giraffe And The Pelly And Me by Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake, and really enjoyed My First 1000 Words by Heather Amery and Stephen Cartwright, as I loved searching for all the different objects to find in the pictures, including the little yellow duck on every spread!

Who are you favourite illustrators?
I love the work of Eric Carle, Brian Wildsmith, Michael Foreman, Polly Dunbar, Catherine Rayner, Katie Cleminson, Oliver Jeffers and John Burningham – also a special mention to James Mayhew, whose guidance at Cambridge School of Art was very much appreciated, and who remains a wonderful source of encouragement.


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Birdsong, Ellie Sandall, Picture Book Of The Year, Junior Design Awards, Eric Carle, Brian Wildsmith, Michael Foreman, Polly Dunbar, Catherine Rayner, Katie Cleminson, Oliver Jeffers and John Burningham
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