Text and images from one of the best kids books of the year

Robust debate in ReadingRoom earlier this week about kids books featured claims that different forms of storytelling were needed to appeal to middle-grade readers, and that more books on New Zealand birdlife was the last thing anyone needed. As if on cue, and as reproof, Massey University Press has issued the newly published Sylvia and the Birds by Johanna Emeney & Sarah Laing, a wildly inventive memoir in drawings, photos and words to tell the remarkable life of Sylvia Durrant, also known as “The Bird Lady”, who ran a bird rescue service for 35 years and helped over 140,000 sick and injured birds. A few choice extracts are as below.

From the text, by Johanna Emeney, on Sylvia’s bird rescuing: Newly rescued birds were always a bit skittish, so I kept them in this dark shelter. The ones who’d been with me a while enjoyed their playground in the garden with a kiddies’ pool, but any traumatised kororā needed peace and quiet. So, around 7am, I’d sort out who could go swimming at the beach and who would just be paddling. If they were strong and nearly ready for release, they’d get a good workout in one of the small rockpools at low tide.

Once, a little chap was brought to me after a gull had savagely pecked him on the head. Young and weak, he’d washed up onshore. There he was, buried in the sand with only his head poking out, and the gull was trying to eat him. I called him Kinky because his poor brain seemed to have a few connections missing after that — or maybe just some of the wiring was a bit bent out of shape. Kinky found it difficult to walk in a straight line, but he loved his swims.

Hop Along was another of my special kororā. He also had head injuries, but that wasn’t the only thing wrong with him. He had been found washed up on Muriwai Beach, and one of his feet was badly damaged. Because kororā use their webbed feet to dive, swim and walk, and their claws to dig burrows, a bad foot injury leaves them unable to forage for prey or to prepare their nests properly. It also slows them down, making them much more vulnerable to predators.

On Sylvia’s childhood with her brothers and sisters as wards of the state: No one at school wanted to be friends with us. We didn’t have nice things to share because we didn’t have mums and dads to buy them for us.

We even had to get our books and pens from the headmaster, while everyone else brought theirs from home. It always felt a bit shameful, as if we had done something naughty.

It was the same at Sunday School: the only friends we had were our brothers and sisters and the other foster children. However, there was one super thing about Sunday School for Frances, Betsy and me, and that was singing. We were told we sounded like little songbirds. One day the popular radio station 1ZB came to our church to record children singing for their Sunday programme, and we were the ones who were chosen. It was exciting to have microphones and recording machines placed in front of us. We tried our hardest to sing without mistakes. People couldn’t see our tattered clothes on the radio; they could only hear our voices.

Sylvia and the Birds by Johanna Emeney & Sarah Laing (Massey University Books, $39.99) is available in bookstores nationwide.

Sarah Laing is co-author of Sylvia and the Birds, published by Massey University Press in September 2022. Her earlier books include a collection of short stories (Coming Up Roses), a graphic novel (The...

Johanna Emeney is the co-author of Sylvia and the Birds. She teaches creative writing at Massey University, and has published three books of poetry and an academic book, The Rise of Autobiographical Medical...

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