More than cute: Picture books that leave a mark

(published 11-29-23) is tracking me. The Amazon creation knows what book I’m reading and every book I’ve read in the last four years. It even knows what I will probably read next.

“Feathered Friends,” by emerging author and artist
 Madelyn Lee, contains fun facts about birds
 in backyards and around the world.
(courtesy Early Light Press LLC)
Goodreads also reports how I’m faring in the 2023 Reading Challenge—if I’m ahead or behind. I’m almost never ahead. My goal this year is 50 books and it’s going to be close. What if I’m a book short on New Year’s Eve?

In August, an answer to that question arrived in a carefully wrapped package from Virginia. Inside was “Feathered Friends,” a children’s picture book from first-time author and illustrator Madelyn A. Lee, age 18.

I don’t receive review books very often, and this one was unlike the others—an oversized field guide for toddlers. The book’s 32 pages feature 17 birds, and how prescient that one of them is American flamingo, a species that crashed Virginia (and 10 other states) a month after the book’s publication.

Copies of Madelyn’s book flew off the table at a Barnes & Noble book signing in Williamsburg, just before she went off to begin studies at the Savannah College of Art and Design.

No, I did not add “Feathered Friends” to my Goodreads list. But I’m keeping that option in my hip pocket. A book is a book, right?

Yes, and potentially much more. The surprise arrival of “Feathered Friends” started me thinking about books for kids and their power to influence how we feel about birds and nature. Young minds remember stuff; early exposure to birds and conservation themes can only be good. Worked for me!

The inspiring Monty and Rose books, this one
and its sequel, are about birds and birders
 beating the odds on a busy Chicago beach.

My admiration for birdy picture books is soaring. I’ll mention a few of my favorites here because their authors and illustrators deserve the love, and because you might have little ones on your holiday shopping list.

You probably know about Monty and Rose, the piping plover pair that captivated Chicagoans by raising a family on Montrose Beach in 2019. The endangered species hadn’t nested here in more than 70 years.

Monty and Rose chose a tough neighborhood to call home. It took a small army of dedicated volunteers to protect them during their time on the busy strand. The general of that army was Tamima Itani, an Evanston resident who serves as lead volunteer coordinator for Chicago Piping Plovers, a collaboration between Chicago Bird Alliance, Chicago Ornithological Society and Illinois Ornithological Society.

Tamima is the go-to source for information about Monty and Rose and their extended family. Nobody knows them better and turns out she has a gift for putting good stories into words.

Tamima’s two children’s books, “Monty and Rose Nest at Montrose” and “Monty and Rose Return to Montrose,” will leave an impression, I promise. They are adorable but also informative and real. The illustrations by Anna-Maria Crum are terrific.

“The Christmas Owl,” successful on
 so many levels, shines a light on the
important role of wildlife rescue centers.
(courtesy Little, Brown and Company)

Net proceeds from Tamima’s book sales go to piping plover research and conservation. She’s raised $12,000 so far. For more information go to

On the cuteness scale, a piping plover is hard to beat, especially a downy chick on toothpick legs. Northern saw-whet owl is another heart melter.

Do you remember Rockefeller? She’s the saw-whet who was discovered trapped in New York’s Rockefeller Center Christmas tree in 2020. Like Monty and Rose, “Rocky” became national news—a feel-good story when our Covid-stricken nation really needed one.

I wasn’t aware of “The Christmas Owl” until my wife purchased a copy in September. It’s a special book, and a New York Times bestseller at that. I like it because it highlights the important role of wildlife rehabilitators, in this case Ravensbeard Wildlife Center in Saugerties, N.Y., which came to Rocky’s rescue. The center helped her recover and then released her back into the wild.

One of the book’s coauthors, Ellen Kalish, founded Ravensbeard in 2000. You can watch her set Rocky free in a short video posted on the center’s website. Have a tissue ready. The site offers a line of Rocky merch, too. The famous little owl with the saucer eyes is a fundraising dynamo!

“Owl Moon” won the 1988 Caldecott
Medal for its illustrations and remains
 in print, available in nine languages.
 (courtesy Penguin Random House LLC)
I must say, until now, the only children’s book to consistently enter my thoughts was “Owl Moon,” the 1987 classic by Jane Yolen. You must know it: the tale of father and young daughter who go owling on a snowy, winter night. The words, the story, and illustrations (by John Schoenherr) are picture book perfection.

Yolen has more than 400 children’s books to her credit. She considers “Owl Moon” her best. If you are not familiar, do check it out.

Next month is the Christmas Bird Count, an all-day event that begins with pre-dawn owling. I always think of “Owl Moon” when I’m out there in the cold and dark, not knowing if the effort will be rewarded. As Yolen writes, “When you go owling you don’t need words or warm or anything but hope.”

Copyright 2023 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.