A Nest for Celeste, written and illustrated by Henry Cole, 336 pp, RL 4

There aren't too many books with animals as characters written at a fourth grade reading level or higher, and of those, even fewer are set in a real world (where animals behave like animals and are not anthropomorphized) and not a fantasy one. Rabbit Hill, Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIHM, Exiled: Memoirs of a Camel, A Dog's Life and The One and Only Ivan are the first that come to my mind when I think of books where animals, in their natural environments or captivity, are the main characters of a story where we get into their minds and experiences. Add to this list Henry Cole's magnificent A Nest for Celeste: A Story About Art, Inspiration, and the Meaning of Home, which is bursting with Cole's wonderful illustrations and, now that it is in paperback, is a steal at $6.99!

What is most intriguing about Cole's book is the role of John James Audubon and his apprentice Joseph as characters in A Nest for Celeste. Cole's writing is detailed and exciting enough that Celeste's story alone would have made a great book. However, as her path becomes entwined with Joseph's, Cole masterfully finds a way to tell the story of the rare and valuable but sometimes brutal work that Audubon was doing as an artist, naturalist and ornithologist by cataloging the birds of America with vibrant, powerful, emotion filled paintings that were unlike anything that had been done before the first publication of Birds of America in 1827. In addition to this, Cole's story brings to light the vast difference in the population of wild birds in America in 1821 and now, especially with a chilling scene in the book in which enormous flocks of passenger pigeons, now extinct due to hunting and destruction of habitats, passes over the plantation where the story takes place. Cole clearly did his research to create a setting that is so tangible, so richly detailed and so completely different from what we know today.

A Nest for Celeste: A Story About Art, Inspiration, and the Meaning of Home begins with our hero, Celeste, weaving a sturdy basket of dried grasses in her hole, which is near the dining room in the Oakley Plantation, not far from New Orleans, Louisiana. Celeste is about to sling one of her baskets over her shoulder and head out in search of crumbs and scraps beneath the dining table when Illianna and Trixie. two thuggish rats, burst in, demanding Celeste hand over her food stores. Quaking, she heads out to collect food for her tormentors. Impatient with how long it is taking her, the two rats head out into the dark dining room only to be attacked by the cat, who snags Illianna and heads outside with his dinner. Cole includes an illustration of the cat with the limp rat in his mouth and, while this may be upsetting to some readers, I think it is important in setting up the balance of nature, the cycle of life and the effect that the human imprint has upon them.

Celeste's close escape from the cat leads her upstairs to a new realm of the plantation house and right into the boot of Joseph, Audubon's fifteen year old apprentice. The two are staying at the plantation with Audubon being paid to give dancing and drawing lessons to Eliza Pirrie, teenage daughter of the  plantation owner, while also doing research for his book. Longing for his home and family, Joseph sees a companion in Celeste and happily feeds her and carries her around in his pocket when he can. He even sketches her, dipping her feet in graphite shavings so that she can put her footprint next to his signature. Through Joseph, Celeste is given an intimate view of Audubon and the way he works. She is shocked to see that this man who paints these beautiful images of regal birds kills them first and uses wire and nails them to a board in order to paint them in a pose of action. Celeste watches and tries to help as a wounded woodpecker, brought into Audubon's room to be painted, dies. This causes Joseph to question the master, exclaiming, "You are looking to capture its life on paper, but by killing it first? By pinning it to a board?" Audubon responds angrily that there are dozens of woodpeckers in the woods where he shot this one and one less bird will not make a difference. On top of that, it is not possible to get a living bird to strike the poses that he is looking for. Audubon asks Joseph, "Do you want to hold the bird for me while it is still alive and have its bill slice through your hand? A caged bird will sit like a caged bird. I want my specimens posed like I want to paint them. . . Your duty is to master the techniques of watercolor botanicals, not to question my handling of the bird specimens. I am preserving their beauty forever. If I could paint their portraits as well another way, I would!"

Celeste's story takes a dangerous but exciting turn when, in an effort to comfort a thrush that has been captured and caged in Joseph's room for study, she offers to head outside and procure dogwood berries for the bird, who's name is Cornelius. Before she leaves, Cornelius trills the most beautiful song.  Of the warble Cole writes, "The beauty of it made Celeste's chest give a tiny heave; and she felt a pang, and an ache so intense that her heart skipped and trembled. She clutched at it with her paw. The little birdsong ended, and the room was still. 'I don't know which I like better," Celeste whispered, 'your beautiful song, or just after." What a poetic meaningful way to describe this event for young readers. Celeste's adventure to the outside world proves to be perilous. In her attempts to find the dogwood bush she is swept up into a massive, crashing storm and a flood of rainwater carries her far from home. Bedraggled and exhausted, Celeste is befriended by Lafayette, a kindhearted osprey, an elegant raptor who's diet consists almost exclusively of fish. Lafayette offers to help Celeste get back home and she asks him to return the next day and when she will tell him her plan.

Celeste's plan, as you can see by the illustration above, is a success. Upon her return, Celeste maneuvers a dogwood branch into Cornelius's cage and convinces him to warble his song when she gives him a sing.  As she expected, the bird perched on the branch singing in his cage is the perfect pose that Joseph needs to capture the thrush in an almost natural setting. With this success, Celeste releases Cornelius, knowing she has helped Joseph. However,  Lafayette's friendship with Celeste results in his being shot and captured by Audubon. How Celeste saves one friend, loses another and makes a home of her own make up the memorable end to this beautiful story. A Nest for Celeste: A Story About Art, Inspiration, and the Meaning of Home deserves to be on the bookshelves forever alongside classic animal stories like A Cricket in Times Square, Charlotte's Web, Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIHM and Rabbit Hill.

Below are Audubon's renditions of characters from A Nest for Celeste: A Story About Art, Inspiration, and the Meaning of Home.

John Audubon: Thrush

John Audubon: Osprey

Popular posts from this blog

Fox + Chick: The Sleepover and Other Stories by Sergio Ruzzier

Be a Tree! by Maria Gianferrari illustrated by Felicita Sala

Reading Levels: A Quick Guide to Determining if a Book Is Right for Your Reader