Cover Image

Ten Birds by C. Young

Young, Cybèle. Ten Birds. Toronto: Kids Can Press, 2011. Print.

Faced with the prospect of fording a river, ten chubby, adorable birds use found objects to devise vehicles that will convey them, one by one, to the other side. Sound simple? Perhaps not. When Ten Birds won the 2011 Governor General’s Literary Award for Children’s Illustration, the jury praised it as a “visual riddle.” And indeed, there does seem to be more to this enigmatic counting book than mere plot summary can provide.

For starters, the birds’ predicament is innately absurd: why don’t they just fly across the river? Or make use of the bridge that looms in the background of every illustration? And what are we to make of the birds’ report-card epithets (Outstanding, Quite Advanced, Needs Improvement), which may or may not correspond to their river-crossing ingenuity?

Perhaps Ten Birds is less about birds and rivers than our tendency to overcomplicate the simplest problems, confusing complexity with elegance. Young’s exquisite pen-and-ink illustrations certainly suggest a tension between the two: dense, furious skeins of crosshatching resolve into minimalistic set pieces, in which vast swaths of negative space dwarf the objects depicted.

Come to think of it, perhaps the book is simply an extension of Young’s prevailing sensibilities as a visual artist. Known for her miniature sculptures in Japanese paper, Young has a gift for amplifying the strangeness of everyday objects by reproducing them, out of context and much reduced, in a vacuum of blank space. Likewise, her ten flightless birds and their bizarre contraptions, intricately rendered yet utterly inexplicable, riddle the reader with their presence. (And, like the paper sculptures, they are darn cute.)

The fact that Ten Birds refuses to explain itself is one of its principal charms, and its mystery will beguile readers young and old.

Highly recommended: 4 out of 4 stars.
Reviewer: Sarah Mead-Willis

Sarah is the Rare Book Cataloguer at the University of Alberta's Bruce Peel Special Collections Library. She holds a BA and an MLIS from the University of Alberta and an MA in English Literature from the University of Victoria.