Review of the Day: The True Story of Stellina
I think all the best picture books coming out this year involve birds in some way. There's this book, the odd but fun Learning To Fly by Sebastian Meschenmoser, I'm Not Cute by Nicholas Allen (both of which I'll review presently), and this book to boot. I smell a trend in the air.
Woman walks into a library. She comes up to me at the reference desk with this request: Do you have any picture books on finches? Not goldfinches or anything like that. Straight-out finchy finches. Searching the whole of the New York Library system I came up with two (count `em) two possible contenders. Needless to say, I promised her that I would ask other librarians around the country for other finch related titles before the week was over. I did so and among the answers I received came an e-mail from a woman suggesting Matteo Pericoli's newest picture book for children. Entitled, "The True Story of Stellina", the book promised to be a finch-centric true tale about a woman and the baby finch she adopted. The best part? It takes place here in Manhattan! Quick as a wink I recommended it to the woman, though I had to point out that it was a very very new book and might take some time before it was added to my library system. She was pleased and I was clued in to one of the cutest l'il ole books I ever did see. A real departure from his previous work, "Stellina" marks author/illustrator Matteo Pericoli's first foray into the world of picture book fiction. Touching, and true, it's remarkable for both its simplicity and its subtle illustration style. Sweet as all get out.
It happened one day in Manhattan on the corner of 3rd Avenue and 46th Street. Pericoli's future wife, Holly, was just standing on the corner when she heard a "CHEEP". And there, standing just beside a street sign, was a very tiny bird. "Could you also have heard `CHEEP' on the corner of 4th and Third, in the middle of the day, while cars were rushing by? ROOOOOAAAAARRRR!". Well Holly did. Holly sat and waited for the mama bird to come, but no one did. So Holly took the little finch home and named her Stellina which means "little star" in Italian. Normally baby finches are mighty picky about who feeds them, but Stellina allowed Holly to drip the juice of fresh grapes from her pinky finger into the waiting avian mouth. With each new step Stellina takes, she looks at Holly as if to say, "And now? What's going to happen now?". Soon the finch was flying, singing to Holly's piano playing, and would perch on the end of Matteo's pencil as he drew his work. And eight years later Stellina died. She might have done so on the corner of that busy street had Holly never found her. Instead she lived with people who loved her and lived a small but extraordinary little life.
If you're wracking your brain right now wondering why the name, "Matteo Pericoli" sounds so familiar then perhaps you are familiar with some of his previous projects. A couple years ago Pericoli came out with a book entitled, "Manhattan Unfurled". Following the Manhattan line of buildings along the sea, this artist painstakingly drew every last building in pencil, labeling each structure as he went along. The result was a complex pull-out book that would have people staring at it for hours. In my particular case, I was at my in-laws for Thanksgiving one year and after dinner someone brought out this book. We started passing it along between one another trying to identify places we recognized. In "Stellina" you can see Pericoli working on this book when the baby finch perches gracefully on the tip of his pencil. For the illustrations of this book, Pericoli has drawn in what appears to be pencil, and then painted the pictures over with a watercolor wash that's all peaches and blues in bright but soothing hues. It sounds odd to say, but these illustrations aren't too terribly dissimilar from Shel Silverstein's drawings. Just better honed and less zany.
The whole bird-in-a-great-big-city idea is as old as the art of American picture books itself. The most memorable of these, by far, would have to be Robert McCloskey's, "Make Way For Ducklings". And covering the kestral end of the spectrum is Rober J. Blake's, "Fledgling", but till now the world has been woefully bereft of the finch's point of view. "Stellina" hopes to change all of that. Bound to be one of the better remembered pet-adoption tales from the big city.