Cover of Elsie's Bird by Jane Yolen

Elsie’s Bird

I was in the doctor’s office years ago, waiting for him to come into the room, and reading the Smithsonian Magazine. In it was a story about East Coast women who moved west to live to the Nebraska territory. Often these women went crazy because there were no identifiable sounds there. It was too big a place, too wind-through-prairie-grasses where they were more used to the tidy cities or the comfortable farms of the East. Some walked out into the tall grass until they were totally lost and died. But the ones who’d brought along canaries seemed to survive at a higher rate.

And of course, I thought: there’s a picture book here.

When I wrote it—and actually when I sold it to one of the many editors who originally turned the book down—it was the story of a young Boston woman who falls in love and goes west with her new husband. She brings along the bird, sticks close to home (the sod house) until one day the bird escapes the cage and flies out the window, and she has to go retrieve it.

The editor (the marvelous Patricia Gauch) sat for some time on the mss. and then said that it needed a child at the center. Make it the farmer’s little girl. And I said an immediate no. Then thought a minute and added, “Wait, let me try it.” And no sooner had I gotten a very rough bit down than I knew Patti had been absolutely right. She also got one of her award-winning illustrators, David Small—an artist who I admired greatly and enjoyed personally—to do the illlustration. He also lies in that area and his wife has made a spectacular “prairie garden.”

Now I subscribe to Smithsonian but have never gotten another picture book idea out of it. Yet.


  • Nominated for the 2013-2014 Georgia Children’s Book Award
  • “Elsie’s Bird” has been chosen as a Georgia Book Award Nominee for 2013-14
  • ELSIE’S BIRD chosen by Betsy Bird (haha, not related!) of Fuse #8 for one of the best picture books of the year.
  • It is a nominee for the Golden Sower/Nebraska Book Award.
  • It won a Midwest Bookseller’s Award

Around the web:

What reviewer’s have said:

  • “Lyrical language and evocative watercolors tell a touching story.”—Reading Rockets
  • *STARRED REVIEW* “Elsie moves with her widowed father from bustling 19th-century Boston to the vast Nebraska plains, where she misses the hymns, play songs and hum of her Eastern city. Yolen’s measured, moving verse shimmers with brilliantly honed images and sharp details. Readers won’t forget the “maple chest / packed with linens her mother had sewn / over the long year before she died.” Ink, watercolor and pastel illustrations, both fluid and precise, suggest the brisk movement of the external world and the subtlety of internal emotions. Lithe strokes of color and line describe rippling fields, the arc of a jump-rope and even grief in the face of a father. Masterfully composed full- and half-page spreads frequently place Elsie in upper and outer quadrants, with grasses, land, buildings and bare rooms pushing her into the periphery. She appears marginalized by larger forces, making it easy for young children to empathize with this small, displaced girl who can’t see Nebraska’s wild, rambling beauty or hear the musical buzz of its insects. This poignant and powerful picture book closes with an uplifting rising of prairie voices—music to Elsie’s ears.”—Kirkus
  • “Journey back in time and envelope yourself in the sounds and sights that surround Elsie in her changing world. I loved the way the art and words come together and weave a story rich in complexity, but simple and innocent as well. I felt very much as if I, too, were leaving Boston and all that I knew for life on the prairie. It’s easy to get swept away by Jane Yolen and David Small.”—
  • “Yolen’s prose moves gracefully from solemn to euphoric as her young heroine embraces her adopted landscape (“She heard long vees of geese spinning out cries like thread; the creaking call of sandhill cranes…. She clapped her hands and sang back to them, too, skip-rope songs and sea shanties”). But the real draw lies in Small’s deeply empathic treatment of his heroine, his unerring sense of composition and color, and, above all, his keen sensitivity to the emotional pull of place. Though Elsie doesn’t immediately recognize the beauty of the plains, Small does, imbuing the windswept fields and Elsie’s cozy sod house with all the vitality of her former home.”—Publishers Weekly
  • “This is a truly lovely book in which to get lost and find one’s self.”—Richie’s Picks
  • *STARRED REVIEW* “City kids will marvel as I once did at the notion of losing yourself in a vegetation usually cropped and pruned into respectable lawns. Country kids will find a soulmate in a girl so in love with a bird that she casts herself in harm’s way to aid him. And parents will be equally entranced by Yolen’s wordplay and Small’s inventiveness. Quiet. Contained. Original. A keeper.”—School Library Journal
  • “The lyrical text and beautiful illustrations bring the prairie to life.”—
  • “Elsie was a Boston girl who is familiar with the sights and sounds of a harbor. She’s a singing child and a listening one, knowing the songs of all the birds around her. This early happy life changes, however, after the death of her mother and her father’s decision to move west to Nebraska. Though she tries not to let her father know, Elsie misses the sounds and sights of Boston, and not even her canary, Timmy Tune, can fill the silence for her. The expansiveness of the illustrations promises us space filled with new sounds, and, eventually, Elsie learns to hear them. Not every child has been a pioneer, but Elsie’s story resonates with many kinds of readers.”—Chicago Tribune
  • “Award-winners Jane Yolen and Michigan’s David Small are masters in creating beautiful and thoughtful books for children In “Elsie’s Bird” . . . they combine their talents for the first time, a story with big ideas just right for young minds to ponder. The lyrical text expresses the voice of a young girl dealing with change. . . The strong storytelling provides the canvas for Small’s visual detail. With his precise brush strokes, readers are taken into the open prairie of sweeping landscapes, similar to his home in southern Michigan. . .This reassuring story can inspire interesting conversations as children experience a variety of change in their young lives.”—
  • “Author Jane Yolen and illustrator David Small have teamed up for the first time to create Elsie’s Bird, a captivating new picture book that recalls the wonder of Little House on the Prairie and Sarah, Plain and Tall. . . Partly inspired by true stories of the Westward Movement and by Yolen’s late husband, who could identify bird calls, Elsie’s Bird is a visually stunning look at this era. In elongated pages, Small uses perspective to show the packed Boston waterfront, a lengthy train chugging across flatlands and the wide expanse of the Nebraska prairie. His gentle ink, watercolor and pastel illustrations capture the earthy colors of the Midwest, and show Elsie’s transformation as the dark, menacing tall grass gives way to the soft colors of wildflowers. Small, also a master of expression, not only reveals an evolution in Elsie’s geography but in her emotions. Readers will rejoice along with her when sound and a smile return.”—Book Page
  • “Author Jane Yolen’s lyrical story is matched by Small’s illustrations, in which he uses watercolor, pastel and ink to capture both Elise’s spirit and the majesty of the Nebraskan landscape.”—Scrippsnews
  • Whether your young reader loves the prairie, a particular bird or is having trouble facing a new challenge or change, this gentle story is sure to find a place next to your reading chair and in your heart.”—St Louis Dispatch