Saludos todos! This week we are continuing our themes of nature and environmental awareness with another great read. The book for this week is The Sky Painter: Louis Fuertes, Bird Artist, written by Margarita Engle and illustrated by Aliona Bereghici. This book follows the life of renowned bird painter, Louis Agassiz Fuertes (1874–1927), including his bicultural upbringing, his worldly travels, and his absolute love for birds. As some of you may remember from my previous post on Margarita Engle, she, too, is an avid bird-watcher, botanist and advocate for nature conservation and environmentalism. Written in Engle’s characteristic poetic style, this book celebrates the beauty of nature, and the pursuit of one’s dreams.
The book is divided up into a series of poems that read like prose, illustrating Engle’s classic, stylistic fusion. Every two pages there is a new title and with an artful use of enjambment and rhyme, Engle narrates the life and work of the wonderful bird artist. Engle, like with many of her other books, expertly combines art and imagination with nonfictional information that will undoubtedly educate young readers in more ways than one. According to a review by Good Reads, “Louis Agassiz Fuertes (1874–1927) is now known as the father of modern bird art. He traveled with many scientific expeditions all over the world. His best-known works—paintings for habitat exhibits at the American Museum of Natural History in New York—are still beloved by visitors today. His art helped to encourage wildlife conservation, inspiring people to celebrate and protect the world of wings.” Indeed, Engle’s book joins in Fuertes’ mission of encouraging wildlife conservation and reveling in the beauty of our world’s diverse flora and fauna. Here at Vamos a Leer, we, too, would like to join in the choir and celebrate the natural habitats of the world, while inspiring readers and educators to participate in and encourage environmental conservationism and wildlife protection.
Bereghici’s stunning illustrations also capture the fusion of nonfiction and imagination, science and art, by imitating Fuertes’ paintings in her own illustrations. She paints series of birds with their scientific names written below, as though the images were found in a museum or an encyclopedia, much like Fuertes’ illustrations. In effect, the illustrations are not only mesmerizing, but also extremely informative. Readers will surely pick up on some of the scientific names for different species of birds while enjoying this delicate and uplifting tale.
To supplement these wonderful illustrations, Engle has also included a historical note at the back of the book with biographical information about Fuertes, a photograph with him and a large owl, and some images of his own paintings.
The book begins with Fuertes as a young boy, focusing on his innate love for birds, and the bicultural makeup of his household. Fuertes’ father was Puerto Rican while his mother was American: “I care for injured birds/ in my little hospital/ under our front porch./ Papi scolds in Spanish,/ and Mama scolds in English;/ but I think a messy porch is fine.” As readers are first introduced to this precocious and creative young boy, they will also notice his big dreams and the drive and determination he has in pursuing those dreams. Even though Fuertes’s parents did not necessarily agree with his aspirations of becoming a bird artist, Fuertes persevered nonetheless: “Papi wants me to be an engineer like him,/ and Mama says I should listen to Papi;/ but I dream of becoming a bird artist.” Engle’s emphasis on the dreams of young people may remind readers of one of my previous posts on Drum Dream Girl, also by Margarita Engle. In The Sky Painter, like in Drum Dream Girl, Engle’s essential message is that young people should believe in themselves and pursue their dreams, no matter what their gender, heritage or social standing is.
As Fuertes grows older, and the story progresses, the narrative takes readers to the many different parts of the world where Fuertes painted, including South America and the Caribbean, where his father was originally from. The influence of Fuertes’ heritage on his love for diverse species and environments is an important element of this story, mirroring also the influence of Engle’s Cuban heritage on her own love for birds and wildlife. For both Fuertes and Engle, the rich biodiversity of the Caribbean played an important role in their early lives, and has continued to resonate in their work.
Later in life, Fuertes has a family and begins working at the Natural-History Museum where he gives tours to visitors and school children. Engle emphasizes Fuertes’ love for children throughout the story, including the ways in which Fuertes would tell children stories and teach them how to paint and draw, and how his bird paintings “are printed/ on cards that children/ love to collect.” This charming detail exemplifies yet another way in which Engle takes potentially esoteric, non-fiction information and makes it accessible, informative, and entertaining for young children.
Additionally, Engle includes aspects of Fuertes’ conservationist ideology and perspective in her bibliographic narrative. For example, Fuertes advocates against the use of animal fur and feathers as decoration: “When I see women wearing feathers/ on their fancy hats, I politely suggest/ other decorations—roses or ribbons—/ so that rare birds/ can survive.” Fuertes’ passion for birds and for art turned into a way a life as he dedicated himself and his art to environmental advocacy and wildlife preservation: “All over the world, millions of people/ have learned to enjoy, protect,/ and celebrate/ the wild beauty/ of wings!” In keeping with Fuertes’ mission, we ask all our readers, educators, and bloggers to take this Earth Day as a moment to reflect on how we can all be more environmentally conscious. What can you do for the planet and the preservation of its wildlife? How can you live a more eco-friendly life?
For those of you interested in using this book in the classroom, here are some additional links:
- Unleashing Readers, interview with Margarita Engle and teaching ideas
- Margarita Engle’s personal website, Activity Kit for The Sky Painter
- Diverse Children’s Books Link-Up: Verse Novels, featuring Engle’s Enchanted Air
For those of you interesting in teaching about wildlife preservation in the classroom, here are some additional links:
- National Wildlife Federation, full list of over 20 lesson plans on ecology, habitat, wildlife and ecosystems (grades K-12)
- New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, full list of over 20 lesson plans on wildlife, habitats and conservationism (grades Pre K-3)
Stay tuned for more books about our lovely planet!
Images Modified from The Sky Painter: Pages 11, 15, 16, 26, 29, 30