Elsie’s Bird by Jane Yolen, Illustrated by David Small. 2010. New York: Philomel Books.

Where is home for you? Think about that for a moment–then see if you can call up the sounds associated with that very special place. Maybe you hear water, high wind, the call of sea gulls or loons or night owls. Or you might hear traffic, music, laughter–store keepers or other vendors. Whatever you hear, think about how keenly sound defines home for us. That is one of the underlying themes in this lovely and tender story of Elsie, whose father takes her from the home she knows–the Boston harbor, with its fish merchants and cobblestone streets–to the home she doesn’t: the Nebraska prairie, with its windblown grass, the darkness of a sod hut, and the faint sounds of crickets and grasshoppers. Luckily, Elsie has company–her tiny canary Timmy Tune. But he provides her only comfort until Elsie begins to hear the prairie singing to her: “wind rippling the grass” . . . “geese spinning out cries like thread” . . . “the creaking call of sandhill cranes.” Yolen has a way of choosing words that are just right, yes–but often delightfully surprising, too. David Small’s minimalist watercolors have just the right amount of detail–notice the expressive faces.

Ages: Primary, Elementary

In the Classroom

  • Talk about the two geographic locations important in this book: Boston and Nebraska. Have any ov your students lived in either place? What can they share about life in one setting or the other?
  • As you share the story, pay particular attention to Elsie’s feelings. How do they change? What causes the changes?
  • Notice the expressions on characters’ faces. How would you describe them? What do they tell you?
  • Elsie’s father makes a fairly sudden decision to move to Nebraska. The author doesn’t tell us directly why he does this. What do your students think his reasons might be?
  • Talk about the sounds Elsie hears in the Boston harbor. What are they? What does she hear on the Nebraska prairie? How does this change?
  • Talk or write about the sounds that define “home” for your students. What sounds are close to their hearts–what do they recall when/if they are away from home? Encourasge writers to capture these in a story, paragraph, or poem. Which sounds are important to you? Share those, too–in a paragraph or poem of your own.
  • Talk about Elsie’s house in Nebraska. It’s likely quite different from anywhere your students have lived. Have they ever seen a house like it? What does this tell us about the time in which this story takes place? What other clues do we get about the time in which this story occurs? Talk about how illustrators can offer us small clues through the details of their pictures: clothing, transportation, landscapes, furniture, and so on.
  • Create paintings or drawings of favorite places, encouraging students to include some visual clues that would tell a reader/viewer something important about time or place.