Book Review: “Look Up! Bird-Watching in Your Own Backyard”

(Here is my long-overdue review of Annette LeBlanc Cate’s children’s picture book, Look Up! I have to mention that Annette sent me not only an inscribed copy of the book but also three autographed copies to give away at the Snow Goose Chase. My mother was going to buy at least one copy of the book for the Chase before Annette offered to send some. I consider her a friend since writing to her this Spring to ask about interviewing her for my blog, but even if she weren’t my friend, I would rate this book highly. Part of the reason we’ve become friends is that we are both passionate about birds, and teaching kids about nature.)


A few months ago, when I found out about the new nonfiction children’s picture book, Look Up!: Bird-Watching in Your Own Backyard by Annette LeBlanc Cate (Candlewick, March 2013), I thought it would be perfect for kids and especially for the Young Naturalists’ Corner at the Snow Goose Chase at the end of April. I can’t tell you what it would have meant to have this book when I was eight or nine years old — I’m pretty sure I would have become a serious birder even sooner. The book includes a lot of information I didn’t come across until much later.

When you stop to think about, there really aren’t any good books for kids on learning how to watch, and listen to, birds. There are lots of junior field guides (such as Bill Thompson’s Young Birder’s Guide to Birds of North America, from Peterson), and story books about birds (such as The Burgess Bird Book for Children), and nature books about birds in the wild (such as Mel Boring’s Birds, Nests and Eggs), but really nothing to help kids, especially those who live in cities and might think there is nothing to watch, learn about the hobby of birding:

Oh, I know what you’re thinking… Bird-watching is NOT boring! Is a hawk swooping down to gobble a mouse boring? Of course not. And how about crows getting into your neighbor’s garbage? Also not boring…

Birds are, by far, the easiest-to-see of all wild creatures. No matter how small your corner of the world, there will be some birds in it. You might be amazed at just how thrilling it can be to see new birds, find out about them, and learn their names! …

The point is…spending time outside observing life and drawing in a sketchbook can help you see the world in a whole new way. You’ve always known that the birds and the trees and the insects and the rocks were there… but when you take the time to sit and patiently draw them, you do more than see them: you experience them. You feel yourself more connected to the natural world, more at home in it.

The book points out that, if you live in a city, “You may not have a yard, but you do have the sky. Look up!” Look around your street, too, keeping quiet and paying attention. You might be surprised what you can see when you start to look. The book moves from the very general — where to find birds — to the particular, getting more detailed as it goes on, from the many colors of birds, their shapes (and how the shapes of the birds and their bodies are clues), their behaviour, and then field marks, seasonal plumage, sounds and birdsong. The book also talks about habitat, range, and migration, and how to use a field guide when kids are ready for one. There’s a wonderful section at the end about classification, with explanations about how scientists classify life forms and why and how they use Latin names.

Look Up! is a picture book, comic book, and a birding book all rolled into one, with excellent drawing of many species of birds. Annette has drawn cartoon birds to illustrate her book, and the birds have quite a lot say with most of the text occurring as thought bubbles. The text is informative and educational, but still appealing and fun for kids to read. And the book is packed with pictures and text, starting with the endpages (with information on “What NOT to bring when you watch birds!”, “What Do You Need to Watch Birds?” “Bird-Watching Do’s…and Dont’s!”, “Some Thoughts about Bird Drawing”, and “Some last tips for you…” Annette wrote the book with technical assistance from Jim Barton of Cambridge, Massachusetts, who has been birding for 45 years, leading field trips and teaching bird identification for the Massachusetts Audubon Society, the Friends of the Mt. Auburn Cemetery, the Cambridge public school system, and the Brookline Bird Club.

This is one of my favorite spreads from the book,


At the bottom of most pages, Annette includes facts about birds — for example Foot Note, Look Closely, Be a Bird Brain, and Wing Tip. Annette offers helpful tips on sketching birds, simple ID tricks, and enjoying birds anywhere you are.

Not many children’s nonfiction picture books have bibliographies, but Look Up! does. Annette lists a number of the books she read to  help her with her drawing and writing, including How to Know the Birds by Roger Tory Peterson, The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior and The Sibley Guide to Birds, Naming Nature by Carol Kaesuk Yoon, Peterson First Guide to Birds of North America (the field guide that got Annette started), and the little Golden Guide’s Birds: A Guide to Familiar American Birds by Herbert S. Zim and Ira N. Gabrielson. I think it’s important to note that other than the Peterson First Guide, none of the books in the bibliography are specifically kids’ books. Annette has done a lot of solid research for this book, and has used these other books to build a strong scientific foundation for Look Up!

One thing that I think makes the book so successful is that Annette still considers herself to be somewhat of a new birder herself, and she doesn’t talk (or write) down to young readers. She communicates very clearly her enthusiasms and eagerness for birds and birding. Which is only fitting because this book came out of her own observations and experiences sketching birds.

If you know a young birder or young naturalist, this is the perfect book for them to further their love of birds and nature. Even if you are an older birder, I highly recommend this bird book. And it definitely belongs on library shelves. As Annette writes, “You might think that bird-watching is a very serious hobby…. But you don’t have to own binoculars and know a bunch of fancy Latin names to watch birds! This is a book about how everyone, no matter where they live or how old they are, can enjoy bird-watching — and yes, that includes you!”

You can buy it from your favorite independent bookstore or Amazon.

3 thoughts on “Book Review: “Look Up! Bird-Watching in Your Own Backyard”

  1. Edmonton Library has it on order. I am going to donate two copies to local schools where I volunteer!

    Bob Edmonton

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