Book Review: The King of the Birds By Macam & Nelson

This book is an excellent read – clever, interesting, and humorous. And the illustrations are fantastic. The story is based on Flannery O’Connor’s life and writings, and tells the story of her addition of a peacock to her already amazing collection of many various types of birds. Be delighted by The King of the Birds by Acree Graham Macam, pictures by Natalie Nelson, 2016.

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Let’s go ahead and start off this rave with a glimpse of the front end papers just because I love them so much. I won’t show you the end ones though, as yes, they are different, and that would give too much away.

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The protagonist of this book is most likely Flannery, though there is a chance she is merely a supporting character in her crazy brood of fowl. Flannery’s rise to fame first began with a chicken who could walk backwards. This earned Flannery press and made life exciting. And then when things went back to normal, it got too quiet.

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More birds around seemed to help, but something still wasn’t right. So she saved her allowance and finally convinced her mother to let her buy a peacock. The perfect addition – the king of the birds. Only one problem. The king was unimpressed, with Flannery and with the rest of the collection of birds about. He refused to show his beautiful train. Flannery tried everything, from party to parade to feasts, but nothing worked. Then finally, she realized the problem and life was never quiet for her again.

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Being obsessed with illustration, I’m going to talk about that for this book first. I am in love with this art! In full disclosure, I happen to know the illustrator personally, so I may need to be discounted as overly biased. But, I don’t think so. Natalie’s illustrations are so unique and always fantastic that they often appear in places like the New York Times, New York Magazine, and the Washington Post. For The King of the Birds, she composed the illustrations of hand-painted paper, drawings and found photography, all compiled digitally into collage. The illustrations here definitely have a vintage vibe to them – with the patterns, color palette, photography snips, and even the speckled uncoated paper (hooray!) giving a tone of the era of the original Flannery. It feels sophisticated.

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And sophisticated is definitely an appropriate word for the text by Acree Graham Macam. The opening line has this excellent feel of being mid-story, and we are just about to hear the best part. The narrative most definitely isn’t saccharine. There is no written explanation of why things occur or what Flannery, or even the peacock and other birds, are all thinking. Some of it feels sarcastic. Several parts make me pause to attempt to decipher what I’m supposed to be reading into the story. All of it treats the readers, young or old, as intellectuals who can meet the story where they are and sort it all out as life continues on – for the readers, and perhaps for Flannery and the birds too.

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I gratefully and over-enthusiastically received this book from Groundwood Books so that I could decide about a review. There wasn’t a doubt in my mind that I would love the art, but I teared up and definitely felt some strange goosebumps in the end at just how good this whole package of a book from Macam and Nelson actually is. By the way, the two creators are good friends. And the idea for the book itself actually came from Natalie and the two collaborated marvelously to create this stellar piece of art. Twenty by Jenny has an interview with them both that gives some great backstory on the book and why Flannery O’Connor was such an inspiration. Definitely check it out.

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Lastly, I am equally delighted and perplexed by the inclusion of an author’s note in the back. Signed both Acree and Natalie, the note gives some brief insight into who Flannery and the story are inspired by and perhaps give a hint into some possible morals in the tale too. (I was tempted to put “tail” there instead, but I refrained for your sake.) The perplexing part of the note was the ending line suggesting readers check out O’Connor’s infamous “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” short story when they are grown. I love this speaking to the reader as a future friend tone and I actually did grab a copy of the short story to reread as it had been a long time. I love their admiration of O’Connor’s tendency to expose the awful parts of every character and that all need to be forgiven. I did wonder though why they didn’t reference the essay from which this book inherited its name. But I do need to read that one for myself, before I draw any extra references from it to this excellent book.

I adore this book and am so incredibly proud of Natalie for this unique, thought-provoking, and beautiful book. (You too, Acree, though I don’t know you myself.) I definitely think the real Flannery would be honored at the beautiful tribute to her legacy and the cheeky tone it boasts too. Also, I have heard rumors of another book coming from Natalie’s illustration table in the spring, so keep your eyes peeled.

And get thee to a store and buy this beauty, posthaste! I just know you will love it.

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