Everybody is Somebody: Book review of Sylvia and the Birds by Jo Emeney

When I was a kid, my Granny B sometimes sent me kids' magazines and annuals which I absolutely loved. When I opened Sylvia and the Birds by Jo Emeney and Sarah Laing, it reminded me instantly of the those treasures from my childhood. It's full of comics (as I would have called them), activities, and photographs just like the annuals and mags I used to pore over for hours! I know I would have absolutely loved this book if it had existed when I was a kid!

Unlike my treasured annuals and mags, though, Sylvia and the Birds is not about princesses or Morph (does anyone remember him?). This is like an annual with heart! It's the story of Sylvia Durrant who ran a bird rescue centre from her home on Auckland's North Shore for 35 years, and was known as The Bird Lady. 

We are introduced to Sylvia by a couple of cheeky kererū who tell her story through a series of graphic novel vignettes. Sylvia's own photographs from her childhood as a ward of the state in the 30s and 40s add a richness to the story, as do the beautiful artworks and photographs of native birds. Sprinkled through the book are activity pages like bird-spotting (can you tell a thrush from a starling?), facts about predators (did you know that New Zealand has more hedgehogs than the UK, and, cute as they are, they are a threat to native birds?) and things you can do to help look after birds (don't feed your bread to the ducks!)

During her years as The Bird Lady, Sylvia helped over 140,000 birds! She was helped by friends, volunteers, and even by her dog! Missy was so well trained, and such a great sidekick, that she would babysit little penguins while they were at the beach for a swim. If any penguins swam too far away, Missy would gently nose them back to safety. And when swimming time was over, Missy would round the penguins up so Sylvia could take them back home.

When Sylvia was young, she was often made to feel second best. Her clothes were shabby compared to the other kids, and when she was held back a year at school, she thought it was because she was stupid. As well as teaching kids about conservation and caring for our wildlife, her story also teaches kids that no matter what your start in life is, you can achieve wonderful things, and have a real impact on the world around you.

Sylvia was awarded a Queen's Service Medal in 2007 for her conservation work, and her local community commissioned a group of penguin statues at Campbells Bay to celebrate her conservation work, and that of other penguin enthusiasts. Even though she has retired now, this book will ensure her legacy will not be forgotten any time soon!

Sylvia and the Birds is out now from Massey University Press

Further Reading