Once in a great while, we’ll hear a “hoo-hoo-HOOOOO-hoo” coming from our woods in the middle of the night. OWL!
We’re always delighted by this rare sound, since the hooting is our only indication that there really are owls out there. Unlike all the other birds we commonly see (robins, woodpeckers, nuthatches, crows, bluebirds, chickadees, cardinals, wrens), our owly friends, by virtue of being nocturnal and mysterious, like to keep us guessing.
Since it’s pitch black outside (no streetlights), I’ve never actually seen any of the great horned owls that we like to assume are calling to us. They seem to enjoy being elusive, thereby heightening their allure.
Reading Whoo-ku Haiku: A Great Horned Owl Story, a new poetry picture book by Maria Gianferrari and Jonathan Voss (Putnam, 2020), gave me the perfect opportunity to learn more about these magnificent creatures.
I love the idea of a story told entirely in haiku, and Gianferrari brilliantly manages the challenging feat of creating an engaging, suspenseful narrative while imparting essential facts about the life cycle of the most common owl in North America.
The story opens on a snowy day with a great horned owl pair discovering an abandoned squirrel’s nest, which they prepare to their liking.
A great horned owl pair
Finds squirrel’s nest of oak leaves
Perched high in a pine.
Papa adds birch bark
Nest blanketed with feathers
Snow sleeps on the ground.
After defending the nest from disapproving crows, Mama lays a clutch of three eggs, each “A moon of its own.” Papa goes out to hunt while Mama keeps the eggs warm — but when the crows attack again, one of the eggs falls out of the nest — a lucky meal for a raccoon.
After the two remaining eggs hatch, Mama carefully feeds her owlets, who remain “Safe and warm and snug” for a time, while Papa brings home a skunk for dinner.
But life in the woods has more perils in store, as the vulnerable owlets are threatened by a hawk, and one of them is later attacked by a red fox after she falls to the ground during a practice flight. Luckily Mama gets there in time to save her!
The story ends with the owls reunited in their cozy nest under a beautiful moonlit sky. As autumn approaches, the fledglings fly off to “find a home of their own.”
The brevity of haiku is the essence of its power — to capture in direct language a fleeting moment through juxtaposed images. Gianferrari shows off the form to good advantage with her story, as each poem represents an essential beat in the narrative arc. This piques the reader’s interest from the very first poem, subsequently providing instances of comfort and safety, danger and vulnerability, triumph and wonder as the owlets grow. Haiku works well at depicting the unpredictable existence of these raptors, where anything can, and does happen, moment to moment.
Each episode resonates with palpable emotion. There is sadness and loss when Mama loses one of her eggs, anticipation and excitement as the first owlet hatches, menacing fear as the red fox prepares to pounce, and finally, there’s life-and-death terror as Mama dive bombs the fox. Never a dull moment!
With survival comes relief, and a return to calm and harmony:
Together is best
Clan complete; twilight retreats
Full moon is blooming.
Jonathan Voss’s stunning ink and watercolor illustrations capture each scene in vivid, evocative detail, as the story progresses from winter nesting to autumn fledging.
The opening spreads, rendered mainly in dark blues, grays and browns, establish the wintry nocturnal setting — wild and woodsy, with moonglow and gauzy clouds adding a touch of mystery. We see how the beautiful owls, with their mottled brown plumage, distinctive feather ear tufts, huge amber eyes and razor-sharp talons, are masters of camouflage among the tall trees and dry foliage.
With owlets hatching in early spring, the palette includes the light greens of new leaves and the warm golds of sunlight as it illuminates the forest. We observe the nestlings snuggled against Mama’s soft breast as they transition into brave fledglings, fluttering among the branches against a brilliant blue sky. Love how sunbeams stream through canopies and burnish tree trunks, sometimes setting the woods aglow with life.
Some of the full-bleed, double page spreads feature inset panels, a nice way to showcase the text and accentuate the action with focused art. These panels remind me of Japanese scrolls, upon which traditional haiku were vertically inscribed.
Voss also makes good use of perspective, with his up close drawings of Mama and chicks (underscoring familial bond and protectiveness), as well as in the intense melée between Mama and fox (you can practically hear the screeching and squawking).
I also like the contrast between the sharp, intricate details of the birds and branches in the foreground against soft focus backgrounds.
Whether with gorgeous renderings of extended wings gliding or mantling, the endearing chicks with their “Dandelion tufts of down,” or the feathery family of four roosting together, Voss has captured the owls’ beauty, grace, agility, amazing hunting skills, and fierce survival instinct.
Whoo-ku Haiku engages, informs, and enchants. The superb marriage of text and art ensures young readers will become engrossed in the story as they learn about these fascinating raptors. It’s also a nice introduction to the haiku form, which may inspire fledgling poets to go on an owl prowl before writing their own poems.
Back matter includes additional notes about great horned owls, as well as books, websites, and videos for further reference. Kids will like knowing how adaptable great horned owls are and how varied their diet is (rabbits, woodchucks, geese, bats) — and they like to swallow smaller prey whole!
I know you like the book’s clever title — just whooose idea was it? Maria’s daughter thought of it and even wrote her own Whoo-ku book when she was in grade school (making up haiku in the car on long road trips was a favorite family pastime). Sounds like there’s more than one wise old owl in their house. 🙂
WHOO-KU HAIKU: A Great Horned Owl Story
written by Maria Gianferrari
illustrated by Jonathan Voss
published by Putnam BFYR, March 3, 2020
Poetry Picture Book for ages 4-8, 32 pp.
🍎 2020 NATIONAL POETRY MONTH KIDLITOSPHERE ROUNDUP 🍓
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The lovely, ever inventive and multi-talented Tabatha Yeatts is hosting the Roundup at The Opposite of Indifference. Zoom over to check out the full menu of poetic goodness being shared around the blogosphere this week. Stay safe and healthy, and have a nice weekend!
*Interior spreads from Whoo-ku Haiku, text copyright © 2020 Maria Gianferrari, illustrations © 2020 Jonathan Voss, published by Putnam’s BFYR. All rights reserved.
** Copyright © 2020 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.