CM . . .
. Volume XV Number 6. . . .November 7, 2008
Berkeley's Barn Owl Dance.
Tera Johnson. Illustrated by Tania Howells.
Toronto, ON: Kids Can Press, 2008.
32 pp., hardcover, $16.95.
Barn owl-Juvenile fiction.
Preschool-grade 2 / Ages 4-8.
Review by Devon Greyson.
Berkeley Barn Owl loved to dance, and any occasion would do. She fluffed her stuff for hatchings and moltings and even first flights, under the spotlight moon.
But tonight wasn't just any occasion. The Leave the Nest Fall Fest was the biggest barn owl dance of the year. Next evening, Berkeley would be leaving with her fellow fledglings, Bo and Bree.
Berkeley is a young barn owl who, along with her two siblings, is preparing to leave her parents and find her own nest. She also loves to dance. With some trepidation, but with reassurance from her family, Berkeley and the rest of her clutch are sent off into the great world to find their futures. Each night the owlets stop in a possible nesting cavity, and Berkeley tests it out as a dance space. Each space fails her dance-worthiness test until she finally comes to another barn which she can make into her new home.
Tera Johnson's story is a sweet and encouraging one, melding nonfiction about owls with an anthropomorphic storyline about "leaving the nest" and finding one's own way in the world. The language is age-appropriate yet vocabulary-rich. Berkeley's dance routine is set to a catchy refrain that recurs several times. Berkeley's Barn Owl Dance reads like a tell-aloud story and is ripe for reenactment or to become a class play.
Unfortunately, the dance theme and the theme of striking out on one's own are not as well integrated as they could be, leaving the story a bit unfocused at times. There's just a little too much going on in the tale, between Berkeley's fears about leaving home, her extended family's annual party, her love of dancing, the facts about barn owls, and the ending complete with new friend/mate. I would have liked to see the catchy dance-routine refrain introduced earlier so it could be a chant-along refrain throughout the story, but it doesn't quite get there.
Tania Howells' illustrations are digitally rendered art with a soft, retro, watercolour feel. They feature simple, cute drawings of owls with heart-shaped faces and pastel landscapes with smiling moons overhead. The pictures are small, with subdued colours, making them less than ideal for group storytime in this format. However, the illustrator clearly did her homework, as the owls represent barn owls fairly well.
If you can work with the small, pale appearance of the book, there are myriad possibilities for curriculum tie-ins using Berkeley's Barn Owl Dance. For example, the facts about barn owls embedded in the storyline could work into a Canadian animals or endangered species unit. The book would also lend itself nicely to a lesson on telling fact vs fiction in stories (e.g., barn owls really do live both in human-made and natural nesting sites; they do not really tap dance). With preschool audiences, this book could be used as a simple story, skimmed perhaps, due to the somewhat heavy text, and tied in with owl crafts. With school-aged children, there are many opportunities for using this story with its science content, great vocabulary, and theme of trying something new despite one's fears.
Overall, Berkeley's Barn Owl Dance is a very cute book with nice science content. It would have been better if it were printed in a larger, more visually-engaging format for classroom use, but it still seems quite a useful book for teachers, librarians and others working with children and wishing to tie together ecology and literature. It may be one to put on a list for Earth Day activities this spring. I give it a solid recommendation.
Devon Greyson is a librarian at the Centre for Health Services and Policy Research in Vancouver, BC.
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