I Review Children’s Books: Owl Babies
Owl Babies is the tale of three owl babies who wake up to find their mother gone, worry about what may have happened to her, and, ultimately, are reunited with her. The central conceit of Owl Babies is somewhat surprising: it turns out that the Owl Mother is a real dick. For starters, she leaves her three tiny hatchlings alone without telling them where she is going, leaving some sort of note or explanatory owl pellet, or otherwise preparing them for what’s going to happen. Then, when she finally comes home to find them 1. awake 2. entertaining what are, frankly, legitimate concerns (okay, she probably didn’t get lost. But presumably a fox COULD have gotten her, right? Or some other predator.) and 3. happy and relieved to see her, her response is dismissive and cold: “What’s all the fuss? You knew I’d be back.”
There is no possible way two-to-four-day-old owl chicks know anything of the sort, so this is not only their first experience with mama taking their naptime as an opportunity to hit the town, but also their first experience with gaslighting. The Owl Babies’ response is cautionary: they immediately embrace their mother’s narrative and suppress their fear and concern in order to preserve harmony in the nest, and, undoubtedly, in the hopes that agreeing with their Owl Mother will placate her and guard against further abandonment.
Waddell is a better writer than you might think the first few times you read the book. “Why does this page start with ‘but’?” you will ask yourself, “did I miss a page?” You did not! But now you are in the same emotional space as the Owl Babies: “did we miss a page?” they are thinking when they wake up, “did our Owl Mother tell us she was leaving, and we forgot?” When you read that, “they lived in a hole in the trunk of a tree with bits of leaves and owl feathers. It was their house.” You might wonder why Waddell calls it their house and not their home? It’s weird—until you realize Waddell’s choice of “house” is just an acknowledgment that the owl babies are being raised in a dwelling that has none of the affection or warmth one typically associates with a home.
Where the writing does falter is in the Owl Babies’ dialogue; quite a few of the Amazon.com reviews rave about the owl babies’ dialogue and distinctive personalities, but my experience has been that all of them are clunky to read, and Sarah is the only one who seems to have a (problematic, clichéd) consistent characterization: the bossy know-it-all oldest sister. Unless you think having a character say only one thing over and over again constitutes “characterization”, in which case Bill is the owl for you!
Patrick Benson’s illustrations are the best thing about it. His Owl Babies are beautiful and emotive, and my Human Baby touches them a lot, which in Human Baby means: “so pretty, much wow.” Of course, about 90 seconds after my daughter touches one of the pictures reverently, she tries to turn the page, then shoves the book away and wants to get down. This is because there are too many words on each page. If I were Martin Waddell’s editor I would have told him he needed twice as many pages or half as many words. The second best thing about the book is the enjoyment that comes from judging the Owl Mother’s parenting techniques.
Waddell’s weird linguistic tic of constantly using “owl” as a modifier—the owl babies blink their owl eyes, their owl house has owl feathers in it, their mother is literally called “their Owl Mother”—was also the inspiration for a fun game my husband and I play now called “Humans”, where we use "human" as a modifier to describe our baby and our lives.
Story: mostly forgettable
Illustrations: five stars!
Representation: All of the owl babies are white; the owl mother is brown. Everyone is able-bodied.
How will I feel when I read it aloud?: after five readings, you’ll feel like you’re stumbling over the words a lot. After fifty readings, you’ll feel worried that you haven’t figured out Percy’s emotional state yet. You probably won’t get to five hundred readings unless your baby is less invested in page turning than mine is.
Should I buy it: Oh, sure. All the stuff that’s wrong with it is stuff that’s fun to complain about, and if you click through below, The Scold will get a percentage of the sale, which will help us to feed our Human Babies. No pressure, though.
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